Sign up ×
Physics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for active researchers, academics and students of physics. It's 100% free.

The orbit of satellites around Earth eventually decays, or so I read. This is typically caused either by atmospheric drag, or by tides. I would assume most satellites have a limited service life in orbit. Hence the question - What is the typical orbital life of a satellite? How long before it's successor must be launched into orbit ?

EDIT: For instance, a weather satellite

share|cite|improve this question
The answer depends on both the height of the orbit (or dominantly on the height of it's perigee if not circular) and the density of the orbiting body. – dmckee Jun 24 '12 at 19:26
@dmckee - to be precise, on the ballistic coefficient of the satellite. – Deer Hunter Jul 21 '13 at 18:40
Satellites often are also time-limited by on-board consumables: fuel for station-keeping, the redundant atomic clocks on GPS saellites... – DJohnM Jul 21 '13 at 21:19

1 Answer 1

Geostationary satelites are essentially for ever. This is becoming a problem since there are a limited number of places you want to put a geostationary satelite and most of them are full. Any collisions/explosions in geostationary mean debris will also stay there for a long long time.

For low earth orbit satelites it depends on their shape, altitude and the space weather. The worst case is a large object in low orbit with large solar panels and hence a lot of drag. The ISS loses 90m/day and must be constantly boosted as the orbit gets lower the drag is worse and the falling accelerates - when first launched the ISS would lose 500m/day at it's lower orbit. The minimum safe orbit is around 150km, anything that falls to this level will quickly succumb to atmospheric drag

edit: Hubble is at an orbit of around 600km, with no more service missions after the end of the Space Shuttle it will renter in between 10 and 20years, ie 2020-2030

share|cite|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.