Extension of highly elliptical Earth orbits using continuous low-thrust propulsion

Pamela Anderson, Malcolm Macdonald

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)
168 Downloads (Pure)


The extension of highly elliptical orbits, with free selection of orbit period, using low thrust propulsion is investigated. These newly proposed orbits, termed Taranis orbits, are enabled by existing low-thrust propulsion technology, offering a radically new set of tools for mission design and facilitating new, novel Earth Observation science. One particular example considered herein, using general and special perturbation techniques, is the application of continuous low-thrust to alter the ‘critical inclination’ of an orbit from the natural values of 63.4deg or 116.6deg, to any inclination required to optimally fulfill the mission goals. This continuous acceleration is used to compensate for the drift in argument of perigee caused by Earth’s gravitational field. Pseudo-spectral optimization techniques are applied to the 90deg inclination Taranis orbit, generating fuel optimal low-thrust control profiles, with a fuel saving of ~ 4% from general perturbation results. This orbit provides an alternative solution for high latitude imaging from distances equivalent to geostationary orbits. Analysis shows that the orbit enables continuous, high elevation visibility of frigid and neighboring temperate regions using only three spacecraft, whereas a Molniya orbit would require in excess of fifteen spacecraft, thus enabling high quality imaging which would otherwise be prohibited using conventional orbits. Order of magnitude mission lifetimes for a range of mass fractions and specific impulses are also determined. Finally, a Strawman mass budget is developed, where the mission lifetimes for spacecraft with initial mass of 1000kg, 1500kg, and 2500kg, are found to be limited to 4.3 years, 6 years and 7.4 years respectively.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)282-292
JournalJournal of Guidance, Control and Dynamics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2013


  • elliptical orbit
  • low-thrust propulsion
  • Earth observation
  • high latitude observation
  • optimization techniques


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