Geostationary transfer orbit

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Animation of EchoStar XVII trajectory Equatorial view.gif
An example of a transition from GTO to GSO.
   EchoStar XVII  ·   Earth .

A geosynchronous transfer orbit or geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) is a type of geocentric orbit. Satellites that are destined for geosynchronous (GSO) or geostationary orbit (GEO) are (almost) always put into a GTO as an intermediate step for reaching their final orbit.


A GTO is highly elliptic. Its perigee (closest point to Earth) is typically as high as low Earth orbit (LEO), while its apogee (furthest point from Earth) is as high as geostationary (or equally, a geosynchronous) orbit. That makes it a Hohmann transfer orbit between LEO and GSO. [1]

A satellite destined for a GSO is usually placed into a GTO by its launch vehicle using the launch vehicle's high-thrust engines first, then the satellite moves from GTO into GSO using its own (usually very efficient, but low-thrust) engines.

Manufacturers of launch vehicles often advertise the amount of payload the vehicle can put into GTO. [2]

Technical description

GTO is a highly elliptical Earth orbit with an apogee of 42,164 km (26,199 mi), [3] or 35,786 km (22,236 mi) above sea level, which corresponds to the geostationary altitude. The period of a standard geosynchronous transfer orbit is about 10.5 hours. [4] The argument of perigee is such that apogee occurs on or near the equator. Perigee can be anywhere above the atmosphere, but is usually restricted to a few hundred kilometers above the Earth's surface to reduce launcher delta-V () requirements and to limit the orbital lifetime of the spent booster so as to curtail space junk. If using low-thrust engines such as electrical propulsion to get from the transfer orbit to geostationary orbit, the transfer orbit can be supersynchronous (having an apogee above the final geosynchronous orbit). However, this method takes much longer to achieve due to the low thrust injected into the orbit. [5] [6] The typical launch vehicle injects the satellite to a supersynchronous orbit having the apogee above 42,164 km. The satellite's low-thrust engines are thrusted continuously around the geostationary transfer orbits. The thrust direction and magnitude are usually determined to optimize the transfer time and/or duration while satisfying the mission constraints. The out-of-plane component of thrust is used to reduce the initial inclination set by the initial transfer orbit, while the in-plane component simultaneously raises the perigee and lowers the apogee of the intermediate geostationary transfer orbit. In case of using the Hohmann transfer orbit, only a few days are required to reach the geosynchronous orbit. By using low-thrust engines or electrical propulsion, months are required until the satellite reaches its final orbit.

The orbital inclination of a GTO is the angle between the orbit plane and the Earth's equatorial plane. It is determined by the latitude of the launch site and the launch azimuth (direction). The inclination and eccentricity must both be reduced to zero to obtain a geostationary orbit. If only the eccentricity of the orbit is reduced to zero, the result may be a geosynchronous orbit but will not be geostationary. Because the required for a plane change is proportional to the instantaneous velocity, the inclination and eccentricity are usually changed together in a single maneuver at apogee, where velocity is lowest.

The required for an inclination change at either the ascending or descending node of the orbit is calculated as follows: [7]

For a typical GTO with a semi-major axis of 24,582 km, perigee velocity is 9.88 km/s and apogee velocity is 1.64 km/s, clearly making the inclination change far less costly at apogee. In practice, the inclination change is combined with the orbital circularization (or "apogee kick") burn to reduce the total for the two maneuvers. The combined is the vector sum of the inclination change and the circularization , and as the sum of the lengths of two sides of a triangle will always exceed the remaining side's length, total in a combined maneuver will always be less than in two maneuvers. The combined can be calculated as follows: [7]

where is the velocity magnitude at the apogee of the transfer orbit and is the velocity in GEO.

Other considerations

Even at apogee, the fuel needed to reduce inclination to zero can be significant, giving equatorial launch sites a substantial advantage over those at higher latitudes. Russia's Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is at 46° north latitude. Kennedy Space Center in the United States is at 28.5° north. China's Wenchang is at 19.5° north. Guiana Space Centre, the European Ariane and European-operated Russian Soyuz launch facility, is at 5° north. The "indefinitely suspended" Sea Launch launched from a floating platform directly on the equator in the Pacific Ocean.

Expendable launchers generally reach GTO directly, but a spacecraft already in a low Earth orbit (LEO) can enter GTO by firing a rocket along its orbital direction to increase its velocity. This was done when geostationary spacecraft were launched from the space Shuttle; a "perigee kick motor" attached to the spacecraft ignited after the shuttle had released it and withdrawn to a safe distance.

Although some launchers can take their payloads all the way to geostationary orbit, most end their missions by releasing their payloads into GTO. The spacecraft and its operator are then responsible for the maneuver into the final geostationary orbit. The 5-hour coast to first apogee can be longer than the battery lifetime of the launcher or spacecraft, and the maneuver is sometimes performed at a later apogee or split among multiple apogees. The solar power available on the spacecraft supports the mission after launcher separation. Also, many launchers now carry several satellites in each launch to reduce overall costs, and this practice simplifies the mission when the payloads may be destined for different orbital positions.

Because of this practice, launcher capacity is usually quoted as spacecraft mass to GTO, and this number will be higher than the payload that could be delivered directly into GEO.

For example, the capacity (adapter and spacecraft mass) of the Delta IV Heavy is 14,200 kg to GTO, or 6,750 kg directly to geostationary orbit. [2]

If the maneuver from GTO to GEO is to be performed with a single impulse, as with a single solid-rocket motor, apogee must occur at an equatorial crossing and at synchronous orbit altitude. This implies an argument of perigee of either 0° or 180°. Because the argument of perigee is slowly perturbed by the oblateness of the Earth, it is usually biased at launch so that it reaches the desired value at the appropriate time (for example, this is usually the sixth apogee on Ariane 5 launches [8] ). If the GTO inclination is zero, as with Sea Launch, then this does not apply. (It also would not apply to an impractical GTO inclined at 63.4°; see Molniya orbit.)

The preceding discussion has primarily focused on the case where the transfer between LEO and GEO is done with a single intermediate transfer orbit. More complicated trajectories are sometimes used. For example, the Proton-M uses a set of three intermediate orbits, requiring five upper-stage rocket firings, to place a satellite into GEO from the high-inclination site of Baikonur Cosmodrome, in Kazakhstan. [9] Because of Baikonur's high latitude and range safety considerations that block launches directly east, it requires less delta-v to transfer satellites to GEO by using a supersynchronous transfer orbit where the apogee (and the maneuver to reduce the transfer orbit inclination) are at a higher altitude than 35,786 km, the geosynchronous altitude. Proton even offers to perform a supersynchronous apogee maneuver up to 15 hours after launch. [10]

See also

Related Research Articles

Geosynchronous orbit Orbit keeping the satellite at a fixed longitude above the equator

A geosynchronous orbit is an Earth-centered orbit with an orbital period that matches Earth's rotation on its axis, 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4 seconds. The synchronization of rotation and orbital period means that, for an observer on Earth's surface, an object in geosynchronous orbit returns to exactly the same position in the sky after a period of one sidereal day. Over the course of a day, the object's position in the sky may remain still or trace out a path, typically in a figure-8 form, whose precise characteristics depend on the orbit's inclination and eccentricity. A circular geosynchronous orbit has a constant altitude of 35,786 km (22,236 mi).

Geostationary orbit Circular orbit above Earths Equator and following the direction of Earths rotation

A geostationary orbit, also referred to as a geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO), is a circular geosynchronous orbit 35,786 kilometres in altitude above Earth's Equator and following the direction of Earth's rotation.

Hohmann transfer orbit Elliptical orbit used to transfer between two orbits of different altitudes, in the same plane

In orbital mechanics, the Hohmann transfer orbit is an elliptical orbit used to transfer between two circular orbits of different radii around a central body in the same plane. The Hohmann transfer often uses the lowest possible amount of propellant in traveling between these orbits, but bi-elliptic transfers can use less in some cases.

Delta-v, symbolized as v and pronounced delta-vee, as used in spacecraft flight dynamics, is a measure of the impulse per unit of spacecraft mass that is needed to perform a maneuver such as launching from or landing on a planet or moon, or an in-space orbital maneuver. It is a scalar that has the units of speed. As used in this context, it is not the same as the physical change in velocity of the vehicle.

A geocentric orbit or Earth orbit involves any object orbiting Earth, such as the Moon or artificial satellites. In 1997, NASA estimated there were approximately 2,465 artificial satellite payloads orbiting Earth and 6,216 pieces of space debris as tracked by the Goddard Space Flight Center. More than 16,291 objects previously launched have undergone orbital decay and entered Earth's atmosphere.

Delta-<i>v</i> budget

In astrodynamics and aerospace, a delta-v budget is an estimate of the total change in velocity (delta-v) required for a space mission. It is calculated as the sum of the delta-v required to perform each propulsive maneuver needed during the mission. As input to the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation, it determines how much propellant is required for a vehicle of given empty mass and propulsion system.

In spaceflight, an orbital maneuver is the use of propulsion systems to change the orbit of a spacecraft. For spacecraft far from Earth an orbital maneuver is called a deep-space maneuver (DSM).

In astrodynamics, orbital station-keeping is keeping a spacecraft at a fixed distance from another spacecraft or celestial body. It requires a series of orbital maneuvers made with thruster burns to keep the active craft in the same orbit as its target. For many low Earth orbit satellites, the effects of non-Keplerian forces, i.e. the deviations of the gravitational force of the Earth from that of a homogeneous sphere, gravitational forces from Sun/Moon, solar radiation pressure and air drag, must be counteracted.

Orbital inclination change is an orbital maneuver aimed at changing the inclination of an orbiting body's orbit. This maneuver is also known as an orbital plane change as the plane of the orbit is tipped. This maneuver requires a change in the orbital velocity vector at the orbital nodes.

Graveyard orbit Supersynchronous orbit where spacecraft are intentionally placed at the end of their operational life

A graveyard orbit, also called a junk orbit or disposal orbit, is an orbit that lies away from common operational orbits. One significant graveyard orbit is a supersynchronous orbit well beyond geosynchronous orbit. Some satellites are moved into such orbits at the end of their operational life to reduce the probability of colliding with operational spacecraft and generating space debris.

AsiaSat 3, previously known as HGS-1 and then PAS-22, was a geosynchronous communications satellite, which was salvaged from an unusable geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) by means of the Moon's gravity.

GSAT-1 was an experimental communications satellite launched aboard the maiden flight of the GSLV rocket. The spacecraft was equipped with instrumentation to test Pulse-code modulation (PCM) transmitting on S-band frequencies and transponders operating in the C-band. The spacecraft was unable to complete its mission after a launch failure left it in a lower than planned orbit and propulsion issues prevented the satellite from correcting this via its own maneuvering system.

A supersynchronous orbit is either an orbit with a period greater than that of a synchronous orbit, or just an orbit whose apoapsis is higher than that of a synchronous orbit. A synchronous orbit has a period equal to the rotational period of the body which contains the barycenter of the orbit.

A near-equatorial orbit is an orbit that lies close to the equatorial plane of the object orbited. Such an orbit has an inclination near 0°. On Earth, such orbits lie on the celestial equator, the great circle of the imaginary celestial sphere on the same plane as the equator of Earth. A geostationary orbit is a particular type of equatorial orbit, one which is geosynchronous. A satellite in a geostationary orbit appears stationary, always at the same point in the sky, to observers on the surface.

Ground track Path on the surface of the Earth or another body directly below an aircraft or satellite

A ground track or ground trace is the path on the surface of a planet directly below an aircraft's or satellite's trajectory. In the case of satellites, it is also known as a suborbital track, and is the vertical projection of the satellite's orbit onto the surface of the Earth.

The Intelsat VI series of satellites were the 8th generation of geostationary communications satellites for the Intelsat Corporation. Designed and built by Hughes Aircraft Company (HAC) in 1983-1991, there were five VI-series satellites built: 601, 602, 603, 604, and 605.

Apogee kick motor Type of rocket motor

An apogee kick motor (AKM) is a rocket motor that is regularly employed on artificial satellites to provide the final impulse to change the trajectory from the transfer orbit into its final orbit. For a satellite launched from the Earth, the rocket firing is done at the highest point of the transfer orbit, known as the apogee.

Superbird-A2, known as Superbird-6 before launch, was a geostationary communications satellite ordered and operated by Space Communications Corporation (SCC) that was designed and manufactured by Hughes on the BSS-601 satellite bus. It had a mixed Ku-band and Ka-band payload and was expected replace Superbird-A at the position at 158° East longitude. It was expected to provided television signals and business communications services throughout Japan, South Asia, East Asia, and Hawaii.


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