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Escape velocity

Escape velocity

In physics (specifically, celestial mechanics), escape velocity is the minimum speed needed for a free, non-propelled object to escape from the gravitational influence of a massive body. It is slower the farther away from the body an object is, and slower for less massive bodies.

Escape velocity is only required to send a ballistic object on a trajectory that will allow the object to escape the gravity well of the mass M. A rocket moving out of a gravity well does not actually need to attain escape velocity to escape, but could achieve the same result (escape) at any speed with a suitable mode of propulsion and sufficient propellant to provide the accelerating force on the object to escape.

The escape velocity from Earth is about 11.186 km/s (6.951 mi/s; 40,270 km/h; 36,700 ft/s; 25,020 mph; 21,744 kn)[3] at the surface. More generally, escape velocity is the speed at which the sum of an object's kinetic energy and its gravitational potential energy is equal to zero;[1] an object which has achieved escape velocity is neither on the surface, nor in a closed orbit (of any radius). With escape velocity in a direction pointing away from the ground of a massive body, the object will move away from the body, slowing forever and approaching, but never reaching, zero speed. Once escape velocity is achieved, no further impulse need to be applied for it to continue in its escape. In other words, if given escape velocity, the object will move away from the other body, continually slowing, and will asymptotically approach zero speed as the object's distance approaches infinity, never to come back.[4] Speeds higher than escape velocity have a positive speed at infinity. Note that the minimum escape velocity assumes that there is no friction (e.g., atmospheric drag), which would increase the required instantaneous velocity to escape the gravitational influence, and that there will be no future acceleration or deceleration (for example from thrust or gravity from other objects), which would change the required instantaneous velocity.

For a spherically symmetric, massive body such as a star, or planet, the escape velocity for that body, at a given distance, is calculated by the formula[5]

where G is the universal gravitational constant (G ≈ 6.67×10−11 m3·kg−1·s−2), M the mass of the body to be escaped from, and r the distance from the center of mass of the body to the object.[2] The relationship is independent of the mass of the object escaping the massive body. Conversely, a body that falls under the force of gravitational attraction of mass M, from infinity, starting with zero velocity, will strike the massive object with a velocity equal to its escape velocity given by the same formula.

When given an initial speedgreater than the escape speedthe object will asymptotically approach the hyperbolic excess speedsatisfying the equation:[6]

In these equations atmospheric friction (air drag) is not taken into account.


The existence of escape velocity is a consequence of conservation of energy and an energy field of finite depth. For an object with a given total energy, which is moving subject to conservative forces (such as a static gravity field) it is only possible for the object to reach combinations of locations and speeds which have that total energy; and places which have a higher potential energy than this cannot be reached at all. By adding speed (kinetic energy) to the object it expands the possible locations that can be reached, until, with enough energy, they become infinite.

For a given gravitational potential energy at a given position, the escape velocity is the minimum speed an object without propulsion needs to be able to "escape" from the gravity (i.e. so that gravity will never manage to pull it back). Escape velocity is actually a speed (not a velocity) because it does not specify a direction: no matter what the direction of travel is, the object can escape the gravitational field (provided its path does not intersect the planet).

The simplest way of deriving the formula for escape velocity is to use conservation of energy. For the sake of simplicity, unless stated otherwise, we assume that an object is attempting to escape from a uniform spherical planet by moving away from it and that the only significant force acting on the moving object is the planet's gravity. In its initial state, i, imagine that a spaceship of mass m is at a distance r from the center of mass of the planet, whose mass is M. Its initial speed is equal to its escape velocity,. At its final state, f, it will be an infinite distance away from the planet, and its speed will be negligibly small and assumed to be 0.Kinetic energyK andgravitational potentialenergy *Ug
  • are the only types of energy that we will deal with, so by the conservation of energy,

= 0 because final velocity is zero, and Ugƒ = 0 because its final distance is infinity, so

where μ is the standard gravitational parameter.

The same result is obtained by a relativistic calculation, in which case the variable r represents the radial coordinate or reduced circumference of the Schwarzschild metric.[8][9]

Defined a little more formally, "escape velocity" is the initial speed required to go from an initial point in a gravitational potential field to infinity and end at infinity with a residual speed of zero, without any additional acceleration.[10] All speeds and velocities are measured with respect to the field. Additionally, the escape velocity at a point in space is equal to the speed that an object would have if it started at rest from an infinite distance and was pulled by gravity to that point.

In common usage, the initial point is on the surface of a planet or moon. On the surface of the Earth, the escape velocity is about 11.2 km/s, which is approximately 33 times the speed of sound (Mach 33) and several times the muzzle velocity of a rifle bullet (up to 1.7 km/s). However, at 9,000 km altitude in "space", it is slightly less than 7.1 km/s.

The escape velocity is independent of the mass of the escaping object. It does not matter if the mass is 1 kg or 1,000 kg; what differs is the amount of energy required. For an object of massthe energy required to escape the Earth's gravitational field is GMm / r, a function of the object's mass (where r is the radius of the Earth, G is thegravitational constant, and M is the mass of theEarth,M = 5.9736 × 1024kg). A related quantity is thespecific orbital energywhich is essentially the sum of the kinetic and potential energy divided by the mass. An object has reached escape velocity when the specific orbital energy is greater or equal to zero.


From the surface of a body

An alternative expression for the escape velocityparticularly useful at the surface on the body is:

where r is the distance between the center of the body and the point at which escape velocity is being calculated and g is the gravitational acceleration at that distance (i.e., the surface gravity).[11]

For a body with a spherically-symmetric distribution of mass, the escape velocityfrom the surface is proportional to the radius assuming constant density, and proportional to the square root of the average density ρ.

From a rotating body

The escape velocity relative to the surface of a rotating body depends on direction in which the escaping body travels. For example, as the Earth's rotational velocity is 465 m/s at the equator, a rocket launched tangentially from the Earth's equator to the east requires an initial velocity of about 10.735 km/s relative to Earth to escape whereas a rocket launched tangentially from the Earth's equator to the west requires an initial velocity of about 11.665 km/s relative to Earth. The surface velocity decreases with the cosine of the geographic latitude, so space launch facilities are often located as close to the equator as feasible, e.g. the American Cape Canaveral (latitude 28°28' N) and the French Guiana Space Centre (latitude 5°14' N).

Practical considerations

In most situations it is impractical to achieve escape velocity almost instantly, because of the acceleration implied, and also because if there is an atmosphere, the hypersonic speeds involved (on Earth a speed of 11.2 km/s, or 40,320 km/h) would cause most objects to burn up due to aerodynamic heating or be torn apart by atmospheric drag. For an actual escape orbit, a spacecraft will accelerate steadily out of the atmosphere until it reaches the escape velocity appropriate for its altitude (which will be less than on the surface). In many cases, the spacecraft may be first placed in a parking orbit (e.g. a low Earth orbit at 160–2,000 km) and then accelerated to the escape velocity at that altitude, which will be slightly lower (about 11.0 km/s at a low Earth orbit of 200 km). The required additional change in speed, however, is far less because the spacecraft already has significant orbital velocity (in low Earth orbit speed is approximately 7.8 km/s, or 28,080 km/h).

From an orbiting body

The escape velocity at a given height istimes the speed in a circular orbit at the same height, (compare this with the velocity equation incircular orbit). This corresponds to the fact that the potential energy with respect to infinity of an object in such an orbit is minus two times its kinetic energy, while to escape the sum of potential and kinetic energy needs to be at least zero. The velocity corresponding to the circular orbit is sometimes called the first cosmic velocity, whereas in this context the escape velocity is referred to as the second cosmic velocity.[12]

For a body in an elliptical orbit wishing to accelerate to an escape orbit the required speed will vary, and will be greatest at periapsis when the body is closest to the central body. However, the orbital speed of the body will also be at its highest at this point, and the change in velocity required will be at its lowest, as explained by the Oberth effect.

Barycentric escape velocity

Technically escape velocity can either be measured as a relative to the other, central body or relative to center of mass or barycenter of the system of bodies. Thus for systems of two bodies, the term escape velocity can be ambiguous, but it is usually intended to mean the barycentric escape velocity of the less massive body. In gravitational fields, escape velocity refers to the escape velocity of zero mass test particles relative to the barycenter of the masses generating the field. In most situations involving spacecraft the difference is negligible. For a mass equal to a Saturn V rocket, the escape velocity relative to the launch pad is 253.5 am/s (8 nanometers per year) faster than the escape velocity relative to the mutual center of mass.

Height of lower-velocity trajectories

Ignoring all factors other than the gravitational force between the body and the object, an object projected vertically at speedfrom the surface of a spherical body with escape velocityand radiuswill attain a maximum heightsatisfying the equation[13]

which, solving for h results in

whereis the ratio of the original speedto the escape velocity

Unlike escape velocity, the direction (vertically up) is important to achieve maximum height.


If an object attains exactly escape velocity, but is not directed straight away from the planet, then it will follow a curved path or trajectory. Although this trajectory does not form a closed shape, it can be referred to as an orbit. Assuming that gravity is the only significant force in the system, this object's speed at any point in the trajectory will be equal to the escape velocity at that point due to the conservation of energy, its total energy must always be 0, which implies that it always has escape velocity; see the derivation above. The shape of the trajectory will be a parabola whose focus is located at the center of mass of the planet. An actual escape requires a course with a trajectory that does not intersect with the planet, or its atmosphere, since this would cause the object to crash. When moving away from the source, this path is called an escape orbit. Escape orbits are known as C3 = 0 orbits. C3 is the characteristic energy, = −GM/2a, where a is the semi-major axis, which is infinite for parabolic trajectories.

If the body has a velocity greater than escape velocity then its path will form a hyperbolic trajectory and it will have an excess hyperbolic velocity, equivalent to the extra energy the body has. A relatively small extra delta-v above that needed to accelerate to the escape speed can result in a relatively large speed at infinity. For example, at a place where escape speed is 11.2 km/s, the addition of 0.4 km/s yields a hyperbolic excess speed of 3.02 km/s:

If a body in circular orbit (or at the periapsis of an elliptical orbit) accelerates along its direction of travel to escape velocity, the point of acceleration will form the periapsis of the escape trajectory. The eventual direction of travel will be at 90 degrees to the direction at the point of acceleration. If the body accelerates to beyond escape velocity the eventual direction of travel will be at a smaller angle, and indicated by one of the asymptotes of the hyperbolic trajectory it is now taking. This means the timing of the acceleration is critical if the intention is to escape in a particular direction.

Multiple bodies

When escaping a compound system, such as a moon orbiting a planet or a planet orbiting a sun, a rocket that leaves at escape velocity () for the first (orbiting) body, (e.g. Earth) will not travel to an infinite distance because it needs an even higher speed to escape gravity of the second body (e.g. the Sun). Near the Earth, the rocket's trajectory will appear parabolic, but it will still be gravitationally bound to the second body and will enter an elliptical orbit around that body, with an orbital speed similar to the first body.
To escape the gravity of the second body once it has escaped the first body the rocket will need to be travelling at the escape velocity for the second body () (at the orbital distance of the first body). However, when the rocket escapes the first body it will still have the same orbital speed around the second body that the first body has (). So its excess velocity as it escapes the first body will need to be the difference between the orbital velocity and the escape velocity. With a circular orbit, escape velocity is2times the orbital speed. Thus the total escape velocitywhen leaving one body orbiting a second and seeking to escape them both is, under simplified assumptions:[14]
wherefor circular orbits.

List of escape velocities

LocationRelative to*VeLocationRelative to*VeSystem escape, *Vte
  • (km/s)
On the SunThe Sun's gravity617.5
On MercuryMercury's gravity4.25At MercuryThe Sun's gravity~ 67.7~ 20.3
On VenusVenus's gravity10.36At VenusThe Sun's gravity49.517.8
On EarthEarth's gravity11.186At Earth/the MoonThe Sun's gravity42.116.6
On the MoonThe Moon's gravity2.38At the MoonThe Earth's gravity1.42.42
On MarsMars' gravity5.03At MarsThe Sun's gravity34.111.2
On CeresCeres's gravity0.51At CeresThe Sun's gravity25.37.4
On JupiterJupiter's gravity60.20At JupiterThe Sun's gravity18.560.4
On IoIo's gravity2.558At IoJupiter's gravity24.57.6
On EuropaEuropa's gravity2.025At EuropaJupiter's gravity19.46.0
On GanymedeGanymede's gravity2.741At GanymedeJupiter's gravity15.45.3
On CallistoCallisto's gravity2.440At CallistoJupiter's gravity11.64.2
On SaturnSaturn's gravity36.09At SaturnThe Sun's gravity13.636.3
On TitanTitan's gravity2.639At TitanSaturn's gravity7.83.5
On UranusUranus' gravity21.38At UranusThe Sun's gravity9.621.5
On NeptuneNeptune's gravity23.56At NeptuneThe Sun's gravity7.723.7
On TritonTriton's gravity1.455At TritonNeptune's gravity6.22.33
On PlutoPluto's gravity1.23At PlutoThe Sun's gravity~ 6.6~ 2.3
At Solar System galactic radiusThe Milky Way's gravity492–594[16][17]
On the event horizonA black hole's gravity299,792.458 (speed of light)

The last two columns will depend precisely where in orbit escape velocity is reached, as the orbits are not exactly circular (particularly Mercury and Pluto).

Deriving escape velocity using calculus

Let G be the gravitational constant and let M be the mass of the earth (or other gravitating body) and m be the mass of the escaping body or projectile. At a distance r from the centre of gravitation the body feels an attractive force[18]

The work needed to move the body over a small distance dr against this force is therefore given by

where the minus sign indicates the force acts in the opposite sense of.

The total work needed to move the body from the surface r0 of the gravitating body to infinity is then

This is the minimal required kinetic energy to be able to reach infinity, so the escape velocity v0 satisfies

which results in

See also

  • Black hole – an object with an escape velocity greater than the speed of light

  • Characteristic energy (C3)

  • Delta-v budget – speed needed to perform manoeuvres.

  • Gravitational slingshot – a technique for changing trajectory

  • Gravity well

  • List of artificial objects in heliocentric orbit

  • List of artificial objects leaving the Solar System

  • Newton's cannonball

  • Oberth effect – burning propellant deep in a gravity field gives higher change in kinetic energy

  • Orbital speed

  • Two-body problem


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