For any two massive bodies rotating about their centre of mass there exist five 'stationary' points where the force on a third small body is zero (in the rotating reference frame). Such is the case for the Sun and any individual planet, or for a planet and one of its moons. These points are commonly referred to as the Lagrange points. Their approximate locations are shown in the diagram below for a Sun-planet two body system. The three points in a straight line (L1, L2 and L3) are referred to as the co-linear points, and the other two (L4 and L5) as the triangular points, as they form the third vertex of an equilateral triangle with the main two masses of the system.

Lagrange Points


In 1687 Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica was published. This encapsulated Newton's laws of motion and his law of gravitation. These allowed the calculation of planetary orbits and gave a mathematical underpinning for Kepler's laws of planetary motion (which he annunciated between 1609 and 1619)

Newton's laws allow the motion of a planet around the Sun to be computed fairly readily, as long as only two bodies (the Sun and the planet) are considered. However, the problem of three bodies is much more difficult. There is nothing in the physics of the laws which prevents a solution, only the complexity of the mathematics involved.

Many mathematicians worked on the problem of three-body motion in the 1700's and even today only restricted three-body problems have been found to have analytical solutions, although perturbation theory and numerical methods using computers allow planetary orbits involving the forces from all major solar system bodies to be calculated with high precision.

A publication in 1760 by Leonhard Euler indicated the presence of the stationary points now labelled L1, L2 and L3. In 1772 Joseph Louis Lagrange predicted the points L4 and L5 and in volume 6 of his collected works in 1773 he implied the existence of all five stationary points. None of these works were accompanied by a diagram, and it is not known when the first diagram appeared and when the naming and numbering of the stationary points was first proposed.

Naming Convention

In the original paper by Lagrange (late 1700's) there was no diagram and no labelling of the points. However, in subsequent papers, encyclopediae and books on celestial mechanics most authors (but not all) adopted the linear labelling (L1, L2, L3) I have used. Even into the space era some texts still employed this convention - an example is the text "Introduction to Celestial Mechanics" by S W McCuskey, published by Addison-Wesley (Reading, Massachusetts 1962). [see figure 5-8 from the McCuskey text below].
McCuskey fig 5-8

However, it does appear that NASA was responsible for gradually shifting most people to the L2, L1, L3 convention in the 1970's. This may have been to give greater emphasis to the point between the two primary bodies, which is the only point that exists in a non-rotating system (although of course, in a non rotating system there is no stability and the two main bodies move toward each other and the system collapses!). It may also have been because the point between the two bodies was the first Lagrange point to be used in placing satellites.

In general the astronomical community may prefer the original numbering scheme whereas the space community almost universally uses the sequence L2-L1-L3. However, Lagrange point labelling is a matter of convention. There is no right or wrong. We use what we believe is the original naming convention in this document.

Physics of the Lagrangian Points

The Lagrangian points are places that are stationary in a reference frame that rotates about the system centre of mass (also known as the barycentre) with the same angular speed as the two massive bodies (eg Sun and planet). This is a non-inertial reference frame with gravitational and centrifugal forces acting on any body within it.

The five stationary points exist because the true gravitational forces exerted by both the Sun and the planet are just cancelled by the centrifugal force at these points. At any point within the plane there are two gravitational forces (per unit mass), one due to the Sun (G Ms / Rs2) and one due to the planet (G Mp / Rp2), where Ms and Mp and the respective masses of the Sun and the planet, G is the Newtonian gravitational constant, and Rs and Rp are the distances from the point to the Sun and planet respectively. The centrifugal force per unit mass is given by r ω2 where r is the distance from the point to the center of mass and ω is the angular velocity of the rotating reference frame.

The gravitational forces all are directed toward the massive body in question, whereas the centrifugal force is directed away from the centre of mass (barycentre).

The points L1, L2 and L3 all lie along the line joing the Sun and the planet. Derivation of their positions along this line will be shown in the next section.

Points L4 and L5 lie at the vertices of equilateral triangles whose base joins the Sun and planet (or planet and moon), as shown in the diagram below for L4.

L4 forces

The centre of mass of the Sun-Earth system is shown outside the Sun here for clarity. It actually lies within the core of the Sun, less than 500 km from its centre. However, this distance is just enough to ensure that all three forces at the L4 point can balance. To prove that the triangle is equilateral (equal side lengths) requires that the three forces be resolved into orthogonal components and added algebraically.

The diagram below shows the magnitude of the total force in the Sun-Earth rotating system. Very bright regions signify a strong force field, whereas dark regions are regions of weak field. The yellow lines indicate forces close to zero, and show that L3, L4 and L5 are really quite extended areas rather than points. This is confirmed by the distribution of Trojan asteroids discussed in a later section. The intensity scale of this image is logarithmic in force and has also been allowed to saturate at high field strengths to better show the weak field detail. Note that L1 and L2 are elliptical areas with the major (longer) axis perpendicular to the Sun-Earh line.

Sun-Earth system force field

Derivation of the Positions of L1, L2, L3

Schematic diagram for L1-L3

The force equations for the three Lagrange points are:

Now the centrifugal force on a unit mass is of the form r ω2. However, we can eliminate the angular velocity ω by considering the Earth where: The distances to the centre of mass are defined by two relations: We can now write the force equilibrium equations for each of the co-linear Lagrange points (noting that the gravitational constant disappears): These can be rewritten as equations which can be easily iterated to solve for the respective x values (x1, x2, x3) : The above equations are robust and converge quickly even with an initial value of x = 0.

Real-World Parameters

SystemSun-Earth Earth-MoonSun-Jupiter
Major body
mass M(kg)
Minor body
mass m(kg)
Mass ratio
0.000 0030.0120.000 953
M to m
149,600,000 km
1.000 000 AU
384,401 km 778,300,000 km
5.206 AU
M to CM
449 km 4,667 km 741,629 km
m to CM
149,599,551 km
0.999 997 AU
379,734 km 777,558,403 km
5.197 AU
L1 to m
1,501,557 km
0.010 037 AU
64,499 km 54,293,950 km
0.363 AU
L2 to m
1,491,557 km
0.009 970 AU
58,006 km 51,879,339 km
0.347 AU
L3 to M
149,599,737 km
0.999 998 AU
381,678 km 777,867,410 km
5.200 AU

The values used in the above table are mean values for the planetary distances. As all of the bodies move in elliptical orbits these values change from moment to moment. We may thus ask if the values in the table should be quoted to the nearest kilometre, and the answer of course is no, except in the comparison of two values that differ by only a few tens of kilometres. It should also be noted that we have used a value for the Astronomical Unit (which is defined as the mean distance between the Sun and the Earth) of 149,600,000 km. A more accurate value is in fact 149,597,871 km but the rounded value chosen is easier for comparison purposes.

So bear in mind that all the values in the above table are approximate values. They vary from moment to moment due to the non-circularity of the orbits and are subject to perturbations from other bodies in the solar system. Lagrange himself did not believe that these points would be of significance in the solar system, but the fact that even some distance away the forces acting on a small body are quite small gives these points a physical reality.

Note that only in the Sun-Jupiter system is the barycentre (centre of mass, CM) outside the larger body (in this case the Sun) which has a radius of 695,950 km.

Stability of the Lagrangian Points

The points L1, L2 and L3 which are colinear with the Sun and the planet are points of unstable equilibrium. They may be likened to placing a small ball on top of a smooth hill. As long as the ball is able to sit on the very top of the hill, it will remain stationary. However, even the slightest movement to one side will lead to the ball sliding down the hill, either toward the large body or toward the small body, depending on the direction of the initial displacement. That is, a small displacement from these points will result in an ever increasing force away from the point.

L4 and L5 are conditionally stable. As long as the mass ratio (as defined in the previous table) is less than 0.0385 and the small mass at either L4 or L5 has both a limited displacement and only a small velocity, it will stay in the general area of the point. This point, under the given conditions, may be likened to a ball sitting in a depression on the top of the hill. If its velocity is too great it will move out of the depression and down the side of hill, but if it is only moving slowly it will stay confined to the depression.

However, even at the unstable points, it is possible to set a spacecraft in a reasonably stable orbit around these points. This may be an orbit that circles the point. Stability analysis (see Introduction to Celestial Mechanics by S W McCuskey, Addison-Wesley, 1963) shows that an elliptical orbit both in the orbital plane and out of it are reasonably stable at the co-linear points.

Significance of the Lagrangian Points in the Natural World

The L4 and L5 points are the most significant of the Lagrange points in the natural world because they have been found to be the home of asteroids in at least three systems.

The Sun-Jupiter system has the greatest number of these asteroids and they are called the Trojan asteroids or simply Trojans. As of July 2011 a total of 4917 Trojans have been found in this system, 3168 around the L4 point and 1645 around the L5 point. The diagram below shows the distribution of these asteroids at one point in time. Notice the enormous spread, over a distance of more than 500 million kilometres along the orbital path. This shows the region over which the stability of the area extends.

Jupiter's Trojan Asteroids

As of mid-2011 eight trojans have now been discovered in the Sun-Neptune system and four in the Sun-Mars system. One possible trojan in the Sun-Earth system was recently discovered, but stability analysis has yet to confirm how permanent this may be.

It was once thought that the gegenschein, a very faint patch of light at the midnight zenith, similar to the zodiacal light, may be due to interplanetary dust particles orbiting the Sun-Earth L1 point. This has still to be investigated further.

Significance of the Lagrangian Points in the Technological World

The L1 and L2 points are the sites of several spacecraft in the Sun-Earth system.

From L2 a spacecraft can continuously monitor the solar wind and space weather from the Sun before it reaches the Earth. On the average they can give about one hour's warning of an event. Three such spacecraft are SOHO, ACE, and WIND. These have halo type orbits about L2, not just for stability, but to actually keep them away from a direct line of sight from the Earth to the Sun. This is so that ground stations downloading their data, do not have to point their antennas at the Sun, which is a powerful radio source that can easily overwhelm the signal from the spacecraft transmitters.

It is interesting to note that the replacement for the Solar Heliospheric Observer (SOHO), the Solar Dynamics Observer (SDO) was not placed at L2, but in geosynchronous orbit. The project scientists and engineers for SDO decided to accept the eclipse periods that come with geosynchronous orbit to enable an extremely high downlink data rate (several gigabytes per day), which simply cannot be supported by the current NASA Deep Space Network from the L2 point.

Spacecraft placed at the L1 point (beyond the Earth away from the Sun) tend to be astronomical in purpose. Examples are WMAP, Herschel and Planck. These spacecraft need shielding from the Sun (the Earth partially covers the Sun at this point) to enable their sensitive detectors to be kept as cool as possible and to cover as much dark sky as possible. At the same time their solar cells also need a reasonable amount of sunlight to power the spacecraft.

The Sun from L1 This is how the Sun appears from the Sun-Earth L1 point. The Sun subtends an angle of 0.528o or 31.7 minutes of arc, whereas the Earth subtends an angle of 0.487o or 29.2'. The Earth thus covers 85% of the solar disc. If the Earth did not occult the Sun, the solar power at L1 would be 1343 watts per square metre (compared to 1370 W m-2 at the Earth). However, the actual solar power received will be less than 200 W m-2 due to the presence of the Earth. The actual value will be less than 15% of 1343, due to the phenomenon of solar limb darkening. Of course, spacecraft will not be stationed right at L1, but will orbit about the point, and thus will have access to more solar power.

Note that all of these spacecraft, whether at L1 or L2 have to expend station keeping fuel to keep them in appropriate orbits for any length of time.

Finally, it should be noted that the Lagrange points offer very low energy transfer points for spacecraft on their way to and from other parts of the solar system. They enable new orbital dynamics for fuel-strapped missions of exploration.

Observing the Sun
Lagrange point transfers
Mapping the Cosmic
Microwave Background
[All images NASA artist impressions]