Very low earth orbit propellant collection feasibility assessment
Singh, Lake Austin
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This work focuses on the concept of sustainable propellant collection. The concept consists of gathering ambient gas while on-orbit and using it as propellant. Propellant collection could potentially enable operation in very-low Earth orbits without compromising spacecraft lifetime. This work conducts a detailed analysis of propellant collection from a physics perspective in order to test the assertions of previous researchers that propellant collection can dramatically reduce the cost of propellant on-orbit. Major design factors for propellant collection are identified from the fundamental propellant collection equations, which are derived in this work from first principles. A sensitivity analysis on the parameters in these equations determines the relative importance of each parameter to the overall performance of a propellant-collecting vehicle. The propellant collection equations enable the study of where propellant collection is technically feasible as a function of orbit and vehicle performance parameters. Two case studies conducted for a very-low Earth orbit science mission and a propellant depot-type mission serve to demonstrate the application of the propellant collection equations derived in this work. The results of this work show where propellant collection is technically feasible for a wide range of orbit and vehicle performance parameters. Propellant collection can support very-low Earth operation with presently available technology, and a number of research developments can further extend propellant-collecting concepts' ability to operate at low altitudes. However, propellant collection is not presently suitable for propellant depot applications due to limitations in power.