In astrodynamics, the characteristic energy () is a measure of the excess specific energy over that required to just barely escape from a massive body. The units are length2 time−2, i.e. velocity squared, or energy per mass.
Every object in a 2-body ballistic trajectory has a constant specific orbital energy equal to the sum of its specific kinetic and specific potential energy:
Note that C3 is twice the specific orbital energy of the escaping object.
A spacecraft with insufficient energy to escape will remain in a closed orbit (unless it intersects the central body), with
If the orbit is circular, of radius r, then
A spacecraft leaving the central body on a parabolic trajectory has exactly the energy needed to escape and no more:
A spacecraft that is leaving the central body on a hyperbolic trajectory has more than enough energy to escape:
MAVEN, a Mars-bound spacecraft, was launched into a trajectory with a characteristic energy of 12.2 km2/s2 with respect to the Earth. When simplified to a two-body problem, this would mean the MAVEN escaped Earth on a hyperbolic trajectory slowly decreasing its speed towards . However, since the Sun's gravitational field is much stronger than Earth's, the two-body solution is insufficient. The characteristic energy with respect to Sun was negative, and MAVEN – instead of heading to infinity – entered an elliptical orbit around the Sun. But the maximal velocity on the new orbit could be approximated to 33.5 km/s by assuming that it reached practical "infinity" at 3.5 km/s and that such Earth-bound "infinity" also moves with Earth's orbital velocity of about 30 km/s.
The InSight mission to Mars launched with a C3 of 8.19 km2/s2. The Parker Solar Probe (via Venus) plans a maximum C3 of 154 km2/s2.
Typical ballistic C3 (km2/s2) to get from Earth to various planets: Mars 8-16, Jupiter 80, Saturn or Uranus 147. To Pluto (with its orbital inclination) needs about 160–164 km2/s2.