Whenever the Enterprise arrives at a planet, Kirk orders a "standard orbit". But what are the properties of a standard orbit? And has anything other than a standard orbit ever been used?

Anything in canon would be great.

I took the following pic tonight when I was watching "Tomorrow is Yesterday". I never knew the moon was so close either!

The Enterprise orbiting a planet, the moon is seen quite close up in the background

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    My guess would be geostationary orbit, meaning that the spaceship hovers over the same spot on the ground. This makes communication easier - I doubt even Starfleet communicators can send signals through a solid planet. This is just an educated guess, mind you. Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 9:05
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    In the shows, geostationary orbit is almost never shown visually. The ship almost always appears to be moving relative to the planet's surface. Also the altitude is too low (assuming the planet is Earthlike). Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 13:51
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    I saw someone claim that there are times that Picard requests a "synchronous orbit" as well, implying that "standard orbit" and geosynchronous orbit are indeed different, but it's not like I can easily verify that. It's also safe to guess that standard orbit is not an irregular orbit.
    – Kai
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 16:15
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    A "synchronous orbit" could easily refer to a sun-synchronous orbit (SSO), which is a very useful orbit for survey/mapping, which in turn is exactly what one would expect of an exploration ship. What makes sense as a "standard orbit' would depend on the mission; for diplomacy a circular equatorial orbit at medium distance might be considered less nosy/intrusive.
    – DavidW
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 17:10
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    @OrganicMarble Not being educated in orbital nuances (I only lurk on Space Exploration on occasion) I do get the feeling in ST that every time we see the Enterprise that it is about 30° above the equator and with the edge of the saucer angled down perpendicular to the surface.
    – Peter M
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 17:39

4 Answers 4


According to the Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual, a 'standard orbit' is a circular orbit approximately 40% of the distance of the radius of the planet from the surface of the planet.

Diagram of standard orbits around a planet showing the entry path and the orbit path as well as an elliptical orbit

It also identifies a standard elliptical orbit, should the need arise.

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    Wow, all class M planets have ionospheres! :)
    – DavidW
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 20:25
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    What I like about this is the "Entry Path" vector, which implies a standard orbit isn't just about distance, but also traffic control. I have this idea in my head of starships arriving at busier planets handling entering a standard orbit similar to a car entering a roundabout. Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 20:54
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    Is there any explanation of the apparent orbital inclination of the Enterprise as seen in ST? Because it always seems as if the Enterprise is 30° up in the 'Northern' hemisphere.
    – Peter M
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 22:28
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    And really nitpicking here :) I'm not sure (maybe @OrganicMarble could better express it), but won't applying an orbital change at E instead of N result in an elliptical orbit totally not like the expressed 'Standard Elliptical Orbit'? I would expect the major axis to run through E and the center of the planet and not N/A/Z
    – Peter M
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 22:50
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    @PeterM As the planets being orbited always seem to have some kind of problem, it is natural to hover over the equivalent of Houston :) Commented Feb 8, 2020 at 13:45

No idea of canonicity, but the old Star Trek Concordance states:

The Enterprise usually takes up standard orbit around a planet; depending on conditions or needs, this can be a distance of from one thousand to seven thousand miles out.

p. 203 of the October 1976 edition

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    No indication of the eccentricity, inclination or ascending node?
    – DavidW
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 17:12
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    @DavidW sadly no, the Concordance goes on to give an example from The Savage Curtain where Spock states the orbital altitude is "643 miles, 2021 feet, and 2.04 inches" but that's about it. Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 17:20
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    @OrganicMarble Must have been a remarkably flat planet... or a neutron star/black hole. Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 1:39

According to Memory Alpha:

There are several forms of orbit; some of them are referred to by Starfleet personnel with names like "standard orbit" or "high orbit."

This seems to imply that "standard orbit" and "high orbit" are synonymous or at least somewhat related; "high orbit" is classified as distinct from synchronous and stationary orbits, and is described as

a form of orbit in which the starship maintains a large distance from the planet's surface for safety reasons but is still close enough to use the transporter. The USS Voyager parked in high orbit over Earth, when it visited the planet in 1996, at an altitude of 20,000 kilometers.

Then it is speculated that

it is safe to assume that standard and high orbit are simply orbits with a set of predefined speed and altitude parameters.

Also, probably the exact distance from a given planet could be affected by its size, mass and gravitational pull.

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    Memory Alpha can't really be considered canon. Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 13:59
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    20000 km altitude is about a 12 hour orbit. Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 14:08
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    I disagree with your first statement; some of them...like "standard orbit" or "high orbit." reads as those are 2 distinct examples, not that they are the same.
    – DavidW
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 17:05
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    I don't know how you could have a fixed "standard orbit" that would apply anywhere - depending on what you're orbiting, certain predefined speed/altitude parameters might be impossible to attain. Literally every celestial body would require its own definition of a "standard orbit", which defies the nomenclature of it being a "standard". Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 19:02
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    @KlausÆ.Mogensen No, but it uses canon sources for its information. Every type of orbit given is sourced to one or more episodes, which are canon--in fact, more unarguably so than any reference books.
    – trlkly
    Commented Feb 8, 2020 at 19:35

In the English language an orbit is:

orbit noun (2)

Definition of orbit (Entry 2 of 3)

1a: a path described by one body in its revolution about another (as by the earth about the sun or by an electron about an atomic nucleus) also : one complete revolution of a body describing such a path

b: a circular path


Note that the definition says nothing about the physical forces creating the orbital path of the object.

In astronomy and astronautics, an object in a orbit is moved by a combination of the gravitational forces on it and its initial velocity. If a spacecraft is given a high enough orbit around a planet by its initial orbital insertion it can stay in orbit for years, decades, centuries, millennia, or even millions or billions of years. If the orbit is too low, the spacecraft may face orbital decay due to atmospheric friction and may have to reapply power to stay in orbit or else fall out of orbit and crash, perhaps in days or hours. Except for the possible necessity to periodically increase its orbital velocity to counteract orbital decay, a body in an astronautical orbit has no need to use propulsion to stay up.

In aviation orbit is a verb:

(as a verb) to perform a 360° circuit usually in order to delay: for safety reasons, the ATC will tell the pilot whether to orbit left or right.


Wikipedia's article on Airfield traffic pattern says:

There is also a procedure known as an "orbit", where an aircraft flies a 360° loop either clockwise or anticlockwise. This is usually to allow greater separation with other traffic ahead in the pattern. This can be the result of a controller's instruction. If at the pilot's initiative, the pilot will report e.g. "(tail number or flight number) making one left-hand orbit, will advise complete".


So in aviation, making one or more orbits is a maneuver that an airplane can make. And an airplane while flying in an orbit, like whenever it is flying, needs to be powered at all times. If an airplane in flight looses power, it will begin to fall; if power is not restored in time, the airplane will touch the ground, in either a controlled glide to an emergency landing or an uncontrolled crash landing.

Since some of the creators of TOS had aviation backgrounds, they may have imagined that many TOS orbits were not astronomical or astronautical orbits around celestial bodies, but were aviation orbits where the starship was held up by constant application of power. So there were a number of TOS episodes where the Enterprise lost power due to enemy interference and began to fall from orbit with only hours to go before destruction.

Similarly, the special effects scenes of the Enterprise in orbit around a planet showed it turning in a curved path. So far so good. Since a class M planet like the ones visited by the Enterprise would be several thousand kilometers or miles in diameter, and the Enterprise was shown hundreds or thousands of kilometers or miles above the planet's surface, the starship should have been shown making a circular path thousands of kilometers or miles in diameter. But instead the Enterprise was always shown turning in a tight curve with a diameter of only a few time the ship's length and thus only a few kilometers or miles!

So by accident or design, the special effects showed the Enterprise "orbiting" or circling around a point in space above the planet, and not "orbiting" or circling around the planet itself.

So one might speculate that possibly in those cases Enterprise was not orbiting around the planet in an astronautical orbit formed by initial velocity and gravity, but was hovering in space - held up by constant application of engine power - above a point on the surface of the planet, perhaps to have line of sight for communications and transporters if there was a landing party at that point on the surface of the planet. And for some reason Enterprise didn't stay still at that point but orbited or circled around that point in space above the planet in a path or orbit with a diameter of just a few kilometers or miles.

And you may note that Enterprise usually didn't have its bottom pointed at the planet but usually had its side pointed at the planet.

The reason for all this odd behavior may have been some arcane function of the transporter system.

At other times, the Enterprise may have put itself into normal astronautical orbits around various planets, and the decisions about what type of orbit or "orbit" to use would no doubt be based on various technical factors.

As far as I remember, in other Star trek productions starships were never in danger of falling out of orbit if they lost power. That may be because those starships always used astronautical orbits around planets, or because they never encountered enemies who sucked power out of their engines while they were using powered aviation type obits above planets. For what it is worth, the "orbital" special effects in those other Star trek productions often looked similar to those in TOS.

So it is possible that a star ship can assume a normal astronautical type of orbit around a planet, or take up a totally different powered aviation type "orbit" around a point above the surface of the planet.

I am not certain whether a "standard orbit" refers to an astronautical type of orbit or an aviation type of orbit, let alone any of the more precise details of a "standard orbit".

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    As the OP I read through your post and IMHO it seems that based on the last sentence this post is more suited as a comment than an answer. (and no I didn't mod it either way)
    – Peter M
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 19:39
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    I might not read so much into what the external shots seem to show, much of which could be explained by weird viewpoint angles, perspectives, etc. But I'm a big fan of the powered-orbit idea, because of how it also explains away the rapid-orbital-decay thing, which would otherwise be one of the most annoying physics-fails of the whole show.
    – dgould
    Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 20:42
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    That would make Trek ships comparable to Star Wars' star destroyers, which only ever appear to be a few miles up and held aloft by repulsors, given how every ship suddenly plummets when it loses power. Commented Feb 7, 2020 at 22:26
  • I would think since they use transporters most of the time it would be the range of the transporters. I have nothing to confirm this, but would make sense.
    – user76394
    Commented Dec 12, 2020 at 22:31

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