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Extension of the sun-synchronous Orbit

Macdonald, M. and McKay, R.J. and Vasile, M. and Bosquillon de Frescheville, Francois (2010) Extension of the sun-synchronous Orbit. Journal of Guidance, Control and Dynamics, 33 (6). pp. 1935-1940. ISSN 1533-3884

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Through careful consideration of the orbit perturbation force due to the oblate nature of the primary body a secular variation of the ascending node angle of a near-polar orbit can be induced without expulsion of propellant. Resultantly, the orbit perturbations can be used to maintain the orbit plane in, for example, a near-perpendicular (or at any other angle) alignment to the Sun-line throughout the full year of the primary body; such orbits are normally termed Sun-synchronous orbits [1, 2]. Sun-synchronous orbits about the Earth are typically near-circular Low-Earth Orbits (LEOs), with an altitude of less than 1500 km. It is normal to design a LEO such that the orbit period is synchronised with the rotation of the Earth‟s surface over a given period, such that a repeating ground-track is established. A repeating ground-track, together with the near-constant illumination conditions of the ground-track when observed from a Sun-synchronous orbit, enables repeat observations of a target over an extended period under similar illumination conditions [1, 2]. For this reason, Sun-synchronous orbits are extensively used by Earth Observation (EO) platforms, including currently the Environmental Satellite (ENVISAT), the second European Remote Sensing satellite (ERS-2) and many more. By definition, a given Sun-synchronous orbit is a finite resource similar to a geostationary orbit. A typical characterising parameter of a Sun-synchronous orbit is the Mean Local Solar Time (MLST) at descending node, with a value of 1030 hours typical. Note that ERS-1 and ERS-2 used a MLST at descending node of 1030 hours ± 5 minutes, while ENVISAT uses a 1000 hours ± 5 minutes MLST at descending node [3]. Following selection of the MLST at descending node and for a given desired repeat ground-track, the orbit period and hence the semi-major axis are fixed, thereafter assuming a circular orbit is desired it is found that only a single orbit inclination will enable a Sun-synchronous orbit [2]. As such, only a few spacecraft can populate a given repeat ground-track Sun-synchronous orbit without compromise, for example on the MLST at descending node. Indeed a notable feature of on-going studies by the ENVISAT Post launch Support Office is the desire to ensure sufficient propellant remains at end-of-mission for re-orbiting to a graveyard orbit to ensure the orbital slot is available for future missions [4]. An extension to the Sun-synchronous orbit is considered using an undefined, non-orientation constrained, low-thrust propulsion system. Initially the low-thrust propulsion system will be considered for the free selection of orbit inclination and altitude while maintaining the Sun-synchronous condition. Subsequently the maintenance of a given Sun-synchronous repeat-ground track will be considered, using the low-thrust propulsion system to enable the free selection of orbit altitude. An analytical expression will be developed to describe these extensions prior to then validating the analytical expressions within a numerical simulation of a spacecraft orbit. Finally, an analysis will be presented on transfer and injection trajectories to these orbits.