Atmospheric entry is the movement of an object from outer space into and through the gases of an atmosphere of a planet, dwarf planet, or natural satellite. There are two main types of atmospheric entry: uncontrolled entry, such as the entry of astronomical objects, space debris, or bolides; and controlled entry (or reentry) of a spacecraft capable of being navigated or following a predetermined course. Technologies and procedures allowing the controlled atmospheric entry, descent, and landing of spacecraft are collectively termed as EDL.
Objects entering an atmosphere experience atmospheric drag, which puts mechanical stress on the object, and aerodynamic heating—caused mostly by compression of the air in front of the object, but also by drag. These forces can cause loss of mass (ablation) or even complete disintegration of smaller objects, and objects with lower compressive strength can explode.
Crewed space vehicles must be slowed to subsonic speeds before parachutes or air brakes may be deployed. Such vehicles have kinetic energies typically between 50 and 1,800 megajoules, and atmospheric dissipation is the only way of expending the kinetic energy. The amount of rocket fuel required to slow the vehicle would be nearly equal to the amount used to accelerate it initially, and it is thus highly impractical to use retro rockets for the entire Earth reentry procedure. While the high temperature generated at the surface of the heat shield is due to adiabatic compression, the vehicle's kinetic energy is ultimately lost to gas friction (viscosity) after the vehicle has passed by. Other smaller energy losses include black-body radiation directly from the hot gases and chemical reactions between ionized gases.
Ballistic warheads and expendable vehicles do not require slowing at reentry, and in fact, are made streamlined so as to maintain their speed. Furthermore, slow-speed returns to Earth from near-space such as parachute jumps from balloons do not require heat shielding because the gravitational acceleration of an object starting at relative rest from within the atmosphere itself (or not far above it) cannot create enough velocity to cause significant atmospheric heating.
For Earth, atmospheric entry occurs by convention at the Kármán line at an altitude of 100 km (62 miles; 54 nautical miles) above the surface, while at Venus atmospheric entry occurs at 250 km (160 mi; 130 nmi) and at Mars atmospheric entry at about 80 km (50 mi; 43 nmi). Uncontrolled objects reach high velocities while accelerating through space toward the Earth under the influence of Earth's gravity, and are slowed by friction upon encountering Earth's atmosphere. Meteors are also often travelling quite fast relative to the Earth simply because their own orbital path is different from that of the Earth before they encounter Earth's gravity well. Most controlled objects enter at hypersonic speeds due to their sub-orbital (e.g., intercontinental ballistic missile reentry vehicles), orbital (e.g., the Soyuz), or unbounded (e.g., meteors) trajectories. Various advanced technologies have been developed to enable atmospheric reentry and flight at extreme velocities. An alternative low-velocity method of controlled atmospheric entry is buoyancy which is suitable for planetary entry where thick atmospheres, strong gravity, or both factors complicate high-velocity hyperbolic entry, such as the atmospheres of Venus, Titan and the gas giants.