2017.B.2.2. Analysis of Electric Propulsion Systems for Drag Compensation of Small Satellites in Low Earth Orbits


Teodor Bozhanov (1)
Alejandro Macario-Rojas (1)

  1. University of Manchester, United Kingdom




Electric Propulsion, Drag Compensation, Small Satellites CubeSats, Low Earth Orbit


Small satellites, in particular CubeSats, have been the study focus of many major space agencies, universities and private organisations. Recent studies have shown that small satellites can reach up to 95% of the operational capabilities of large satellites, for only 5% of the cost.

One drawback however, is that CubeSats have no on-board propulsion system and therefore no orbit maintenance and manoeuvre capabilities. This, coupled with the fact that they are usually inserted at Very Low Earth orbits (VLEO), means that orbital lifetime is extremely limited. Consequently, small satellites and CubeSats have reduced lifetime and operational capabilities, limiting the range of their missions.

Electric propulsion systems can generate the required thrust for drag compensation, while being extremely efficient. This results in a relatively low propellant fraction, reducing the negative impact on the available payload. Researchers at the University of Manchester are currently studying the residual atmosphere at VLEO, its effects on spacecraft and possible ways to reduce its influence on satellites.

As part of this ongoing research, this study focuses on using various Electric Propulsion (EP) and Atmosphere Breathing Electric Propulsion (ABEP) systems to increase the lifetime and usefulness of the satellites.

The scope of the study is limited to VLEO ranging from 100-300 km. This zone is ideal for planetary observation and reconnaissance missions. Additionally, it falls within the range of the ABEP system, where higher atmospheric density is more favourable.  The analysis performed on ABEP is mainly focused on the collection efficiency and design of the intake. Operation of various EP’s with different gas compositions is also examined.

The computer model generated for this study accounts for 6 different types of perturbations and is able to model the change of orbital parameters with high degree of accuracy. Preliminary results from several different types of EP show an increase of orbital lifetime between 200 and 600 %. The associated velocity change is sufficient for performing small orbital transfers, rendezvous and docking manoeuvres.

This research, however, is not only limited to Earth. The work done and results obtained can be directly related to the residual atmosphere on other Planets and Moons. The implementation of electric propulsion systems, in deep space CubeSats, would provide scientists with more flexibility and  observation time of the particular body. Additionally, the studies performed on ABEP could be of great importance for future interplanetary missions, as the atmosphere of the Planets could serve as a refueling station.


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