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Strategies for Low-Thrust Transfer Design Based on Direct Collocation Techniques

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posted on 04.08.2020 by Robert E Pritchett
In recent decades the revolutionary possibilities of low-thrust electric propulsion have been demonstrated by the success of missions such as Dawn and Hayabusa 1 and 2. The efficiency of low-thrust engines reduces the propellant mass required to achieve mission objectives and this benefit is frequently worth the additional time of flight incurred, particularly for robotic spacecraft. However, low-thrust trajectory design poses a challenging optimal control problem. At each instant in time, spacecraft control parameters that minimize an objective, typically propellant consumption or time of flight, must be determined. The characteristics of low-thrust optimal solutions are often unintuitive, making it difficult to develop an a priori estimate for the state and control history of a spacecraft that can be used to initialize an optimization algorithm. This investigation seeks to develop a low-thrust trajectory design framework to address this challenge by combining the existing techniques of orbit chaining and direct collocation. Together, these two methods offer a novel approach for low-thrust trajectory design that is intuitive, flexible, and robust.

This investigation presents a framework for the construction of orbit chains and the convergence of these initial guesses to optimal low-thrust solutions via direct collocation. The general procedure is first demonstrated with simple trajectory design problems which show how dynamical structures, such as periodic orbits and invariant manifolds, are employed to assemble orbits chains. Following this, two practical mission design problems demonstrate the applicability of this framework to real world scenarios. An orbit chain and direct collocation approach is utilized to develop low-thrust transfers for the planned Gateway spacecraft between a variety of lunar and libration point orbits (LPOs). Additionally, the proposed framework is applied to create a systematic method for the construction of transfers for the Lunar IceCube spacecraft from deployment to insertion upon its destination orbit near the Moon. Three and four-body dynamical models are leveraged for preliminary trajectory design in the first and second mission design applications, respectively, before transfers are transitioned to an ephemeris model for validation. Together, these realistic sample applications, along with the early examples, demonstrate that orbit chaining and direct collocation constitute an intuitive, flexible, and robust framework for low-thrust trajectory design.


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy


Aeronautics and Astronautics

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Kathleen Howell

Additional Committee Member 2

James Longuski

Additional Committee Member 3

Carolin Frueh

Additional Committee Member 4

Daniel Grebow



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