Designing Trajectories for Low-thrust Propulsion


  • Low-thrust electric propulsion technology enables access to difficult targets in the solar system. A spacecraft using electric propulsion can often deliver a much larger payload to its destination than one using conventional chemical propulsion, making it an ideal choice for challenging targets like asteroids and comets, or for planetary sample-return missions. However, low-thrust missions require a different design approach than chemical missions. The performance of the launch vehicle, the propulsion system, and the power system are inextricably coupled with the dry mass of the spacecraft and cannot be chosen separately. Instead a simultaneous optimization problem must be solved by the flight dynamics and systems engineer. In this presentation, we outline why low-thrust electric propulsion requires a unique systems engineering approach, how we do the design, and the tools that are used here at Goddard to accomplish the task.