Low-thrust roundtrip trajectories to Mars with one-synodic-period repeat time

Masataka Okutsu, Damon F. Landau, Blake A. Rogers, James M. Longuski

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Cycler trajectories - both ballistic and powered - are reported in the literature in which there are two-vehicle, three-vehicle, and four-vehicle cases. Such trajectories permit the installation of cycler vehicles which provide safe and comfortable living conditions for human space travel between Earth and Mars during every synodic opportunity. The question the present paper answers is a logical, obvious one: Does a single-vehicle, one-synodic-period cycler exist? The answer is yes: such a trajectory can be flown - but only with a high-power electric propulsion system. In our example, it is found that "stopover" trajectories that spend 30 days in orbit about Earth and 30 days about Mars, and return astronauts to Earth in one synodic period require a 90-t power generator with a power level of 11 MWe. Fortuitously, and in lieu of using chemical propulsion, the high power level of the electric propulsion system would also be effective in hauling the cargo payload via a spiral trajectory about the Earth. But because one synodic period is not enough for the cycler vehicle to fly both the interplanetary trajectories and the Earth-spiral trajectories, we suggest developing two nuclear power generators, which could alternate flying the interplanetary trajectories and the Earth-spiral trajectories. Once these power generators are launched and begin operating in space, the mass requirement in seven subsequent missions (over a period of 15 years beginning in 2022) would be modest at 250-300 metric tons to low-Earth orbit per mission. Thus two cargo launches of NASA's Space Launch System and one crew launch of the Falcon Heavy, for example, would be adequate to maintain support for each consecutive mission. Although we propose developing two sets of electric propulsion systems to account for the Earth-spiral phases, only one vehicle is flown on a heliocentric trajectory at any given time. Thus, our low-thrust stopover cycler with zero encounter velocities falls into a category of a "one-vehicle cycler," which completes the gap in the literature, where we have already seen multiple-vehicle cycler concepts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)191-205
Number of pages15
JournalActa Astronautica
StatePublished - May 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Aerospace Engineering


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