A Study of Variable Thrust, Variable Specific Impulse Trajectories for Solar System Exploration

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Sakai, Tadashi
Olds, John R.
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A study has been performed to determine the advantages and disadvantages of variable thrust and variable specific impulse (Isp) trajectories for solar system exploration. There have been several numerical research efforts for variable thrust, variable Isp, power-limited trajectory optimization problems. All of these results conclude that variable thrust, variable Isp (variable specific impulse, or VSI) engines are superior to constant thrust, constant Isp (constant specific impulse, or CSI) engines. However, most of these research efforts assume a mission from Earth to Mars, and some of them further assume that these planets are circular and coplanar. Hence they still lack the generality. This research has been conducted to answer the following questions: - Is a VSI engine always better than a CSI engine or a high thrust engine for any mission to any planet with any time of flight considering lower propellant mass as the sole criterion? - If a planetary swing-by is used for a VSI trajectory, is the fuel savings of a VSI swing-by trajectory better than that of a CSI swing-by or high thrust swing-by trajectory? To support this research, an unique, new computer-based interplanetary trajectory calculation program has been created. This program utilizes a calculus of variations algorithm to perform overall optimization of thrust, Isp, and thrust vector direction along a trajectory that minimizes fuel consumption for interplanetary travel. It is assumed that the propulsion system is power-limited, and thus the compromise between thrust and Isp is a variable to be optimized along the flight path. This program is capable of optimizing not only variable thrust trajectories but also constant thrust trajectories in 3-D space using a planetary ephemeris database. It is also capable of conducting planetary swing-bys. Using this program, various Earth-originating trajectories have been investigated and the optimized results have been compared to traditional CSI and high thrust trajectory solutions. Results show that VSI rocket engines reduce fuel requirements for any mission compared to CSI rocket engines. Fuel can be saved by applying swing-by maneuvers for VSI engines, but the effects of swing-bys due to VSI engines are smaller than that of CSI or high thrust engines.
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