Lagrangian point

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The Lagrangian points (Template:IPAc-en; also Lagrange points, L-points, or libration points) are the five positions in an orbital configuration where a small object affected only by gravity can maintain a stable orbital configuration with respect to two larger objects (such as a satellite with respect to the Sun and Earth). The Lagrange points mark positions where the combined gravitational pull of the two large masses provides precisely the centripetal force required to orbit with them.

Lagrange points

Lagrange points in the Sun-Earth system (not to scale)

The five Lagrangian points are labeled and defined as follows:

The Template:L1 point lies on the line defined by the two large masses M1 and M2, and between them. It is the most intuitively understood of the Lagrangian points: the one where the gravitational attraction of M2 partially cancels M1's gravitational attraction.

Example: An object that orbits the Sun more closely than Earth would normally have a shorter orbital period than Earth, but that ignores the effect of Earth's own gravitational pull. If the object is directly between Earth and the Sun, then Earth's gravity weakens the force pulling the object towards the Sun, and therefore increases the orbital period of the object. The closer to Earth the object is, the greater this effect is. At the Template:L1 point, the orbital period of the object becomes exactly equal to Earth's orbital period. Template:L1 is about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.[1]

The Template:L2 point lies on the line through the two large masses, beyond the smaller of the two. Here, the gravitational forces of the two large masses balance the centrifugal effect on a body at Template:L2.

Example: On the opposite side of Earth from the Sun, the orbital period of an object would normally be greater than that of Earth. The extra pull of Earth's gravity decreases the orbital period of the object, and at the Template:L2 point that orbital period becomes equal to Earth's.

The Template:L3 point lies on the line defined by the two large masses, beyond the larger of the two.

Example: Template:L3 in the Sun–Earth system exists on the opposite side of the Sun, a little outside Earth's orbit but slightly closer to the Sun than Earth is. (This apparent contradiction is because the Sun is also affected by Earth's gravity, and so orbits around the two bodies' barycenter, which is, however, well inside the body of the Sun.) At the Template:L3 point, the combined pull of Earth and Sun again causes the object to orbit with the same period as Earth.
Gravitational accelerations at Template:L4

The Template:L4 and Template:L5 points lie at the third corners of the two equilateral triangles in the plane of orbit whose common base is the line between the centers of the two masses, such that the point lies behind (Template:L5) or ahead (Template:L4) of the smaller mass with regard to its orbit around the larger mass.

The triangular points (Template:L4 and Template:L5) are stable equilibria, provided that the ratio of M1/M2 is greater than 24.96.[note 1][2] This is the case for the Sun–Earth system, the Sun–Jupiter system, and, by a smaller margin, the Earth–Moon system. When a body at these points is perturbed, it moves away from the point, but the factor opposite of that which is increased or decreased by the perturbation (either gravity or angular momentum-induced speed) will also increase or decrease, bending the object's path into a stable, kidney-bean-shaped orbit around the point (as seen in the corotating frame of reference).

In contrast to Template:L4 and Template:L5, where stable equilibrium exists, the points Template:L1, Template:L2, and Template:L3 are positions of unstable equilibrium. Any object orbiting at one of Template:L1-Template:L3 will tend to fall out of orbit; it is therefore rare to find natural objects there, and spacecraft inhabiting these areas must employ station keeping in order to maintain their position.

Natural objects at Lagrangian points

It is common to find objects at or orbiting the Template:L4 and Template:L5 points of natural orbital systems. These are commonly called "trojans"; in the 20th century, asteroids discovered orbiting at the Sun–Jupiter Template:L4 and Template:L5 points were named after characters from Homer's Iliad. Asteroids at the Template:L4 point, which leads Jupiter, are referred to as the "Greek camp", whereas those at the Template:L5 point are referred to as the "Trojan camp".

Other examples of natural objects orbiting at Lagrange points:

  • The Sun–Earth Template:L4 and Template:L5 points contain interplanetary dust and at least one asteroid, 2010 TK7, detected in October 2010 by Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) and announced during July 2011.[3][4]
  • The Earth–Moon Template:L4 and Template:L5 points may contain interplanetary dust in what is called Kordylewski clouds; however, the Hiten spacecraft's Munich Dust Counter (MDC) detected no increase in dust during its passes through these points. Stability at these specific points is greatly complicated by solar gravitational influence.[5]
  • Recent observations suggest that the Sun–Neptune Template:L4 and Template:L5 points, known as the Neptune trojans, may be very thickly populated,[6] containing large bodies an order of magnitude more numerous than the Jupiter trojans.
  • Several asteroids also orbit near the Sun-Jupiter Template:L3 point, called the Hilda family.
  • The Saturnian moon Tethys has two smaller moons in its Template:L4 and Template:L5 points, Telesto and Calypso. The Saturnian moon Dione also has two Lagrangian co-orbitals, Helene at its Template:L4 point and Polydeuces at Template:L5. The moons wander azimuthally about the Lagrangian points, with Polydeuces describing the largest deviations, moving up to 32 degrees away from the Saturn–Dione Template:L5 point. Tethys and Dione are hundreds of times more massive than their "escorts" (see the moons' articles for exact diameter figures; masses are not known in several cases), and Saturn is far more massive still, which makes the overall system stable.
  • One version of the giant impact hypothesis suggests that an object named Theia formed at the Sun–Earth Template:L4 or Template:L5 points and crashed into Earth after its orbit destabilized, forming the Moon.
  • Mars has three known co-orbital asteroids (5261 Eureka, 1999 UJ7, and 1998 VF31), all at its Lagrangian points.
  • Earth's companion object 3753 Cruithne is in a relationship with Earth that is somewhat trojan-like, but that is different from a true trojan. Cruithne occupies one of two regular solar orbits, one of them slightly smaller and faster than Earth's, and the other slightly larger and slower. It periodically alternates between these two orbits due to close encounters with Earth. When it is in the smaller, faster orbit and approaches Earth, it gains orbital energy from Earth and moves up into the larger, slower orbit. It then falls farther and farther behind Earth, and eventually Earth approaches it from the other direction. Then Cruithne gives up orbital energy to Earth, and drops back into the smaller orbit, thus beginning the cycle anew. The cycle has no noticeable impact on the length of the year, because Earth's mass is over 20 billion (Template:Val) times more than that of 3753 Cruithne.
  • Epimetheus and Janus, satellites of Saturn, have a similar relationship, though they are of similar masses and so actually exchange orbits with each other periodically. (Janus is roughly 4 times more massive but still light enough for its orbit to be altered.) Another similar configuration is known as orbital resonance, in which orbiting bodies tend to have periods of a simple integer ratio, due to their interaction.
  • In a binary star system, the Roche lobe has its apex located at Template:L1; if a star overflows its Roche lobe, then it will lose matter to its companion star.

Mathematical details

A contour plot of the effective potential due to gravity and the centrifugal force of a two-body system in a rotating frame of reference. The arrows indicate the gradients of the potential around the five Lagrange points—downhill toward them (red) or away from them (blue). Counterintuitively, the L4 and L5 points are the high points of the potential. At the points themselves these forces are balanced.
Visualisation of the relationship between the Lagrangian points (red) of a planet (blue) orbiting a star (yellow) anticlockwise, and the effective potential in the plane containing the orbit (grey rubber-sheet model with purple contours of equal potential).[7]
Click for animation.

Lagrangian points are the constant-pattern solutions of the restricted three-body problem. For example, given two massive bodies in orbits around their common barycenter, there are five positions in space where a third body, of comparatively negligible mass, could be placed so as to maintain its position relative to the two massive bodies. As seen in a rotating reference frame that matches the angular velocity of the two co-orbiting bodies, the gravitational fields of two massive bodies combined with the minor body's centrifugal force are in balance at the Lagrangian points, allowing the smaller third body to be relatively stationary with respect to the first two.[8]


The location of L1 is the solution to the following equation balancing gravitation and centrifugal force:

where r is the distance of the L1 point from the smaller object, R is the distance between the two main objects, and M1 and M2 are the masses of the large and small object, respectively. (The quantity in parenthesis on the right is the distance of L1 from the center of mass.) Solving this for r involves solving a quintic function, but if the mass of the smaller object (M2) is much smaller than the mass of the larger object (M1) then Template:L1 and Template:L2 are at approximately equal distances r from the smaller object, equal to the radius of the Hill sphere, given by:

This distance can be described as being such that the orbital period, corresponding to a circular orbit with this distance as radius around M2 in the absence of M1, is that of M2 around M1, divided by :


The location of L2 is the solution to the following equation balancing gravitation and inertia:

with parameters defined as for the L1 case. Again, if the mass of the smaller object (M2) is much smaller than the mass of the larger object (M1) then L2 is at approximately the radius of the Hill sphere, given by:


The location of L3 is the solution to the following equation balancing gravitation and centrifugal force:

with parameters defined as for the L1 and L2 cases except that r now indicates how much closer L3 is to the more massive object than the smaller object. If the mass of the smaller object (M2) is much smaller than the mass of the larger object (M1) then:

Template:L4 and Template:L5

The reason these points are in balance is that, at Template:L4 and Template:L5, the distances to the two masses are equal. Accordingly, the gravitational forces from the two massive bodies are in the same ratio as the masses of the two bodies, and so the resultant force acts through the barycenter of the system; additionally, the geometry of the triangle ensures that the resultant acceleration is to the distance from the barycenter in the same ratio as for the two massive bodies. The barycenter being both the center of mass and center of rotation of the three-body system, this resultant force is exactly that required to keep the smaller body at the Lagrange point in orbital equilibrium with the other two larger bodies of system. (Indeed, the third body need not have negligible mass). The general triangular configuration was discovered by Lagrange in work on the three-body problem.


The three collinear Lagrange points (L1, L2, L3) were discovered by Leonhard Euler a few years before Lagrange discovered the remaining two.[9][10]

In 1772, Joseph-Louis Lagrange published an "Essay on the three-body problem". In the first chapter he considered the general three-body problem. From that, in the second chapter, he demonstrated two special constant-pattern solutions, the collinear and the equilateral, for any three masses, with circular orbits.[11] Thence, if one mass is made negligible, one immediately gets the five positions now known as the Lagrange Points; but Lagrange himself apparently did not note that.Template:OR


Although the Template:L1, Template:L2, and Template:L3 points are nominally unstable, it turns out that it is possible to find (unstable) periodic orbits around these points, at least in the restricted three-body problem. These periodic orbits, referred to as "halo" orbits, do not exist in a full n-body dynamical system such as the Solar System. However, quasi-periodic (i.e. bounded but not precisely repeating) orbits following Lissajous-curve trajectories do exist in the n-body system. These quasi-periodic Lissajous orbits are what most of Lagrangian-point missions to date have used. Although they are not perfectly stable, a relatively modest effort at station keeping can allow a spacecraft to stay in a desired Lissajous orbit for an extended period of time. It also turns out that, at least in the case of Sun–Earth-Template:L1 missions, it is actually preferable to place the spacecraft in a large-amplitude (Template:Convert) Lissajous orbit, instead of having it sit at the Lagrangian point, because this keeps the spacecraft off the direct line between Sun and Earth, thereby reducing the impact of solar interference on Earth–spacecraft communications. Similarly, a large-amplitude Lissajous orbit around L2 can keep a probe out of Earth's shadow and therefore ensures a better illumination of its solar panels. Another interesting and useful property of the collinear Lagrangian points and their associated Lissajous orbits is that they serve as "gateways" to control the chaotic trajectories of the Interplanetary Transport Network.

Spaceflight applications

Earth–Moon Template:L1 allows comparatively easy access to Lunar and Earth orbits with minimal change in velocity and has this as an advantage to position a half-way manned space station intended to help transport cargo and personnel to the Moon and back.

Earth–Moon Template:L2 would be a good location for a communications satellite covering the Moon's far side and would be "an ideal location" for a propellant depot as part of the proposed depot-based space transportation architecture.[12]

The satellite ACE in an orbit around L1

Sun–Earth Template:L1 is suited for making observations of the Sun–Earth system. Objects here are never shadowed by Earth or the Moon. The first mission of this type was the International Sun Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) mission used as an interplanetary early warning storm monitor for solar disturbances.

Sun–Earth Template:L2 is a good spot for space-based observatories. Because an object around Template:L2 will maintain the same relative position with respect to the Sun and Earth, shielding and calibration are much simpler. It is, however, slightly beyond the reach of Earth's umbra,[13] so solar radiation is not completely blocked. From this point, the Sun, Earth and Moon are relatively closely positioned together in the sky, and hence leave a large field of view without interference – this is especially helpful for infrared astronomy.

Sun–Earth Template:L3 was a popular place to put a "Counter-Earth" in pulp science fiction and comic books. Once space-based observation became possible via satellites[14] and probes, it was shown to hold no such object. The Sun–Earth Template:L3 is unstable and could not contain an object, large or small, for very long. This is because the gravitational forces of the other planets are stronger than that of Earth (Venus, for example, comes within 0.3 AU of this Template:L3 every 20 months).

A spacecraft orbiting near Sun–Earth Template:L3 would be able to closely monitor the evolution of active sunspot regions before they rotate into a geoeffective position, so that a 7-day early warning could be issued by the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center. Moreover, a satellite near Sun–Earth Template:L3 would provide very important observations not only for Earth forecasts, but also for deep space support (Mars predictions and for manned mission to near-Earth asteroids). In 2010, spacecraft transfer trajectories to Sun–Earth Template:L3 were studied and several designs were considered.[15]

Scientists at the B612 Foundation are planning to use Venus's L3 point to position their planned Sentinel telescope, which aims to look back towards Earth's orbit and compile a catalogue of near-Earth asteroids.[16]

Missions to Lagrangian points generally orbit the points rather than occupy them directly.

Spacecraft at Sun–Earth L1

International Sun Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) began its mission at the Sun–Earth L1 before leaving to intercept a comet in 1982. The Sun–Earth L1 is also the point to which the Reboot ISEE-3 mission was attempting to return the craft as the first phase of a recovery mission (as of September 25, 2014 all efforts have failed and contact was lost).[17]

Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) is stationed in a halo orbit at Template:L1, and the Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) in a Lissajous orbit, also at the Template:L1 point. WIND is also at Template:L1.

Spacecraft at Sun–Earth L2

Spacecraft at the Sun–Earth L2 point are in a Lissajous orbit until decommissioned, when they are sent into a heliocentric graveyard orbit.

List of missions to Lagrangian points

Color key:

Template:ColorboxUnflown or planned mission Template:Colorbox – Mission en route or in progress (including mission extensions) Template:Colorbox – Mission at Lagrangian point completed successfully (or partially successfully)

Past and present missions

Mission Lagrangian point Agency Description
"Lunar Far-Side Communication Satellites" Earth–Moon Template:L2 NASA Proposed in 1968 for communications on the far side of the Moon during the Apollo program, mainly to enable an Apollo landing on the far side—neither the satellites nor the landing were ever realized.[22]
Space colonization and manufacturing Earth–Moon Template:L4 or Template:L5 Gerard K. O'Neill / L5 Society First proposed in 1974 by Gerard K. O'Neill.[23]
International Sun–Earth Explorer 3 (ISEE-3) Sun–Earth Template:L1 NASA Launched in 1978, it was the first spacecraft to be put into orbit around a libration point, where it operated for four years in a halo orbit about the Template:L1 Sun–Earth point. After the original mission ended, it was commanded to leave Template:L1 in September 1982 in order to investigate comets and the Sun.[24] Now in a heliocentric orbit, an unsuccessful attempt to return to halo orbit was made in 2014 when it made a flyby of the Earth–Moon system.[25][26]
Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) Sun–Earth Template:L1 NASA Launched 1997. Has fuel to orbit near the L1 until 2024. Template:Asof operational.[27]
Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) Sun–Earth Template:L1 ESA, NASA Orbiting near the L1 since 1996. Template:Asof operational.[28]
WIND Sun–Earth Template:L1 NASA Arrived at L1 in 2004 with fuel for 60 yrs. Template:Asof operational.[29]
Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) Sun–Earth Template:L2 NASA Arrived at L2 in 2001. Mission ended 2010,[30] then sent to solar orbit outside L2.[31]
Herschel Space Observatory Sun–Earth Template:L2 ESA Arrived at L2 July 2009. Ceased operation on 29 April 2013 and will be moved to a heliocentric orbit.[32][33]
Planck Space Observatory Sun–Earth Template:L2 ESA Arrived at L2 July 2009. Mission ended on 23 October 2013, Planck has been moved to a heliocentric parking orbit.[34]
Chang'e 2 Sun–Earth Template:L2 CNSA Original mission ended, left Template:L2 point for 4179 Toutatis at April 15, 2012.[35]
ARTEMIS mission extension of THEMIS Earth–Moon Template:L1 and Template:L2 NASA Mission consists of two spacecraft, which were the first spacecraft to reach Earth–Moon Lagrangian points. Both moved through Earth–Moon Lagrangian points, and are now in lunar orbit.[36][37]
Gaia Sun–Earth Template:L2 ESA Launched on 19 December 2013.[38][39]

Future and proposed missions

Mission Lagrangian point Agency Description
Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) Sun–Earth Template:L1 NASA Launch planned for January 2015.[40]
LISA Pathfinder (LPF) Sun–Earth Template:L1 ESA, NASA Template:Asof launch is scheduled for July 2015.[41]
Solar-C Sun–Earth Template:L1 JAXA Possible mission after 2010.{{ safesubst:#invoke:Unsubst $B=

{{#invoke:Category handler|main}}{{#invoke:Category handler|main}}[citation needed] }}

James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) Sun–Earth Template:L2 NASA, ESA, CSA Template:Asof launch is planned for October 2018.[42]
Euclid Sun–Earth Template:L2 ESA, NASA Template:Asof planned for launch in 2020.[43]
Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) Sun–Earth Template:L2 NASA, USDOE Template:Asof in a 'pre-formulation' phase until at least early 2016, possible launch in the early 2020s.[44]
Exploration Gateway Platform Earth–Moon Template:L2[45] NASA Proposed in 2011.[46]
Advanced Telescope for High Energy Astrophysics (ATHENA) Sun–Earth Template:L2 ESA Launch planned for 2028[47]

The Aditya mission for a solar observatory, is officially scheduled for launch in 2016–17 by ISRO. "It will be going to a point 1.5 million kilometers away from Earth, that is L1 Lagrangian point. From this point it will observe the sun constantly and study the solar corona, the region around the sun's surface.[48]

See also

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  2. The Lagrange Points PDF, Neil J. Cornish with input from Jeremy Goodman
  3. First Asteroid Companion of Earth Discovered at Last
  4. NASA—NASA's Wise Mission Finds First Trojan Asteroid Sharing Earth's Orbit
  5. "A Search for Natural or Artificial Objects Located at the Earth–Moon Libration Points" by Robert Freitas and Francisco Valdes, Icarus 42, 442-447 (1980)
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  7. ZF Seidov, "The Roche Problem: Some Analytics", The Astrophysical Journal, 603:283-284, 2004 March 1
  8. "Lagrange Points" by Enrique Zeleny, Wolfram Demonstrations Project.
  9. {{#invoke:citation/CS1|citation |CitationClass=book }} (16MB)
  10. Leonhard Euler, De motu rectilineo trium corporum se mutuo attrahentium (1765)
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  13. Angular size of the Sun at 1 AU + 930000 miles: 31.6', angular size of Earth at 930000 miles: 29.3'
  14. STEREO mission description by NASA,
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  16. The Sentinel Mission, B612 Foundation. Retrieved Feb 2014.
  17. "ISEE-3 is in Safe Mode". Space College. 25 September 2014. "The ground stations listening to ISEE-3 have not been able to obtain a signal since Tuesday the 16th"
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  31. WMAP Ceases Communications
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  45. NASA teams evaluating ISS-built Exploration Platform roadmap
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