Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2017

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Aerospace Engineering Sciences

First Advisor

Hanspeter Schaub

Second Advisor

Natasha Bosanac

Third Advisor

Jay McMahon


Continuous thrust propulsion systems benefit from a much greater efficiency in vacuum than chemical rockets, at the expense of lower instantaneous thrust and high power requirements. The satellite telecommunications industry, known for greatly emphasizing heritage over innovation, now uses electric propulsion for station keeping on a number of spacecraft, and for orbit raising for some smaller satellites, such as the Boeing 702SP platform. Only a few interplanetary missions have relied on continuous thrust for most of their mission, such as ESA's 367 kg SMART-1 and NASA's 1217 kg Dawn mission.

The high specific impulse of these continuous thrust engines should make them suitable for transportation of heavy payloads to inner solar system destinations in such a way to limit the dependency on heavy rocket launches. Additionally, such spacecraft should be able to perform orbital insertions at destination in order to deliver the cargo directly in a desired orbit. An example application is designing round-trip missions to Mars to support exploration and eventually colonization.

This research investigates the feasibility of return journeys to Mars based on the performance of existing or in-development continuous thrust propulsion systems. In order to determine the business viability of such missions, an emphasis is made on the time of flight during different parts of the mission, the relative velocity with respect to the destination planet, and the fuel requirements. The study looks at the applicability for interplanetary mission design of simple control laws for efficient correction of orbital elements, and of thrusting purely in velocity or anti-velocity direction. The simulations explore different configurations of continuous thrusting technologies using a patched-conics approach. In addition, all simulation scenarios facilitate escape from planetary gravity wells as the initial spacecraft orbit is highly elliptical, both around the Earth and around Mars. This work does not include any optimal trajectory design. For this research, a highly configurable orbit propagation software with SPICE ephemerides was developed from scratch in Go, a modern compiled computer language.

The outcome of this research is that simple orbital element control laws do not lead to more efficient or faster interplanetary transfers. In addition, spiraling out of Earth's gravity wells requires a substantial amount of time despite starting from a highly elliptical orbit, and even with clustered high thrust engines like the VASIMR VX-200. Further investigation should look into hybrid solutions with a chemical engine for departing Earth; outbound spirals from Mars take a more reasonable amount of time.