Design of optimal Earth pole-sitter transfers using low-thrust propulsion

Jeannette Heiligers, Matteo Ceriotti, Colin McInnes, James Biggs

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Recent studies have shown the feasibility of an Earth pole-sitter mission using low-thrust propulsion. This mission concept involves a spacecraft following the Earth's polar axis to have a continuous, hemispherical view of one of the Earth's poles. Such a view will enhance future Earth observation and telecommunications for high latitude and polar regions. To assess the accessibility of the pole-sitter orbit, this paper investigates optimum Earth pole-sitter transfers employing low-thrust propulsion. A launch from low Earth orbit (LEO) by a Soyuz Fregat upper stage is assumed after which solar electric propulsion is used to transfer the spacecraft to the pole-sitter orbit. The objective is to minimize the mass in LEO for a given spacecraft mass to be inserted into the pole-sitter orbit. The results are compared with a ballistic transfer that exploits manifold-like trajectories that wind onto the pole-sitter orbit. It is shown that, with respect to the ballistic case, low-thrust propulsion can achieve significant mass savings in excess of 200 kg for a pole-sitter spacecraft of 1000 kg upon insertion. To finally obtain a full low-thrust transfer from LEO up to the pole-sitter orbit, the Fregat launch is replaced by a low-thrust, minimum time spiral, which provides further mass savings, but at the cost of an increased time of flight.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)253-268
JournalActa Astronautica
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2012


  • Pole-sitter
  • trajectory optimization
  • solar electric propulsion
  • low-thrust propulsion
  • Soyuz launch
  • orbital averaging
  • low-thrust spiral

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