Orbit vs Orbital: Difference and Comparison

People, who are new to atomic theory, generally find the terms ‘Orbit’ and ‘Orbital’ the same. However, this is not the case.


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Both of these terms are very different from one another in multiple aspects.

Key Takeaways

  1. Orbit refers to an object’s path to another entity in space, such as a planet around the sun.
  2. Orbital refers to the region of space around an atom where an electron is most likely to be found.
  3. Orbits and orbitals are related to movement in an area but at different scales.

Orbit vs Orbital

The difference between Orbit and an Orbital is that an orbit is considered a definite path on which electrons revolve. In contrast, an Orbital is an area that is uncertain, and the chances of finding an electron here are maximum. An orbit is a two-dimensional or planar area. However, an orbital represents a three-dimensional area where the probability of finding an electron is maximum.

Orbit vs Orbital

You can think of electrons in an atom as planets in our solar system, where the nucleus represents the sun. These electrons tend to revolve on a path that is called an orbit.

While electrons revolve around their orbit, they follow every principle a planet follows while revolving around the sun.

According to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the position of an electron can’t be determined accurately. The concept of the orbital is introduced to represent the position of the electron inside an atom.

However, orbital also doesn’t state an electron’s speed, direction, and position. But it gives an accurate idea of where an electron might be.


Comparison Table

Parameter of ComparisonOrbitOrbital
DefinitionAn Orbit is a path on which electrons revolve around an atom’s nucleus.The three-dimensional space in which the chances of finding an electron are pretty high is known as an Orbital.
Accuracy in PositionIt represents the exact position of an electron inside an atom.It cannot represent the accurate position of an electron.
Uncertainty PrincipleAn Orbit doesn’t follow Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle as it claims to state the exact position of an electron.As an orbital does not represent the exact position of an electron, it follows Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
ShapeEvery orbit possesses a circular shape.An orbital has different forms of it – spherical, bell-shaped, etc.
DesignationOrbits are defined by the letters K, L, M, N, etc.Orbital is mainly defined using the letters s, p, d, and f.


What is Orbit?

An orbit is defined as a circular path on which electrons revolve due to the pull experienced by the electron towards the positively charged nucleus. This is what Bohr’s atomic theory states.

Bohr’s model also states that the first shell of an atom will hold only 2 electrons. However, Bohr’s model was later on, got rejected.

The widely accepted model in the present time is the one that states the concept of the orbital. To understand the concept of an orbit, you need to know about the solar system.

Think of it this way: the planets in the solar system represent the electrons, which revolve around the sun, which is a nucleus.

Like the planets, the electrons follow Newton’s laws of motion while revolving around the nucleus. Unlike an orbital, an orbit is only a two-dimensional path.

A single orbit can hold up to 2n2 number of electrons.

According to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, an electron’s accurate position cannot be determined.

This is where the concept of orbital comes in.


What is Orbital?

The exact position of an electron cannot be determined, as stated in the principle of Heisenberg. This is what introduces us to the orbital.

An orbital is an uncertain area depicting the maximum possibility of finding an electron. The three-dimensional space around the nucleus represents the orbital.

Orbital possesses various kinds of shapes. Orbitals are generally categorized into four forms – s, p, d, and f. The s orbital has a maximum capacity of holding 2 electrons, p can hold up to 6, d can hold 10, whereas f can hold 16 numbers of electrons.

In the three-dimensional region of the atom, the probability of finding an electron is relatively high, say, 95 per cent.

In orbitals, it is pretty easy to determine the shape of molecules as they are directional. The orbital highly relies on the principle of Heisenberg.


Main Differences Between Orbit and Orbital

  1. An orbit is a path that is definite on which an electron revolves. However, an orbital is a three-dimensional path with a relatively high possibility of finding an electron.
  2. An orbit claims to depict the exact position of an electron within an atom, whereas an orbital does not claim to describe the accurate position of electrons.
  3. A two-dimensional or planar motion of electrons is found in orbit. However, electrons move in a three-dimensional space around the nucleus in an orbital.
  4. As Orbits claim to tell the accurate position of electrons, it does not go well with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
    An orbital does not specify the position of an electron, and it might be anywhere in that 3d space. Therefore, it goes well with the principle of Heisenberg.
  5. None of the orbits shows any characteristics that include direction, whereas in the case of orbital, directional characteristics can be seen, except for s orbital.
Difference Between Orbit and Orbital
  1. https://www.birpublications.org/doi/pdf/10.1038/sj/dmfr/4600551
  2. https://www.oto.theclinics.com/article/S0030-6665(11)00102-2/abstract
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1 thought on “Orbit vs Orbital: Difference and Comparison”

  1. I have always read that Earth rotates in an orbit around the sun and the atoms/electrons rotate in an orbital.

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