Al Yah 3: One way to go

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Go for Launch

As I showed yesterday, impulsive transfer strategies for the near future can be found to insert the Al Yah 3 satellite from the orbit it is now in after the VA241 launch. (There is an analysis of the launch on spaceflight101) However, the Delta-v cost of any near-term solution would likely exceed the capability of the chemical onboard propulsion system by far. A much cheaper strategy consists in waiting until mid-September 2018.

(Author’s Note: All I am providing here is my personal opinion and some results of mathematical calculations I have performed myself based on publicly available information. These results could have been obtained by anyone with a background in orbital dynamics. Nothing I write here shall be construed as reflecting the official position of my employer. Essentially, what we have here is a mathematical problem: A spacecraft is in a given initial orbit and shall reach a certain target orbit B with a certain amount of delta-v. What I am presenting is a mathematical solution to this problem that I have identified. Now, back to the blog article …)

Firstly, I numerically propagated the current orbit of Al Yah 3 for one year, taking into account all relevant perturbation sources. The evolution of the mean argument of perigee, inclination and perigee altitude is shown below. The argument of perigee goes through 360 deg after 230 days. This corresponds to the calendar date 19 September 2018. Until then, the inclination will also increase somewhat. The perigee altitude continues increasing, so there is no problem with the orbital stability from now until then. This is good news.

Evolution of the mean argument of perigee of the launch orbit of Al Yah 3 starting on 2018/2/1 0:0:0 TDB.
Credit: Michael Khan / Evolution of the mean argument of perigee of the launch orbit of Al Yah 3 starting on 2018/2/1 0:0:0 TDB.
Evolution of the inclination of the launch orbit of Al Yah 3 starting on 2018/2/1 0:0:0 TDB.
Credit: Michael Khan / Evolution of the inclination of the launch orbit of Al Yah 3 starting on 2018/2/1 0:0:0 TDB.
Evolution of the mean perigee altitude of the launch orbit of Al Yah 3 starting on 2018/2/1 0:0:0 TDB.
Credit: Michael Khan / Evolution of the mean perigee altitude of the launch orbit of Al Yah 3 starting on 2018/2/1 0:0:0 TDB.

On 19 September, two manoeuvres will suffice to insertion into a perfectly nominal geostationary orbit. The first, with a size of 1505 m/s, gets rid of almost all of the inclination and raises the perigee. The second is much smaller at 122 m/s. This lowers the apogee and reaches 0 deg of inclination so the final orbit is equatorial and circular. The total impulsive cost amounts to 1627 m/s.

Schematic view of insertion of Al Yah 3 into the geostationary orbit on 2018/9/19
Credit: Michael Khan / Schematic view of insertion of Al Yah 3 into the geostationary orbit on 2018/9/19

This is less than 10% more than the 1500 m/s commonly budgeted for geostationary orbit insertion. But of course, it is not realistic to assume this impulsive delta-v value. In reality, manoeuvres are not impulsive but finite, so their efficiency is reduced. Then, especially the first, large manoeuvre will have to be spread out over a sequence of several days. During this time there will be perturbations, so the total cost will increase.

Orbit Topping

Still, it is likely that with the propellant aboard Al Yah 3, it should be possible to reach a final orbit that is at least very close to the nominal geostationary orbit. If necessary, the ion propulsion system foreseen for stationkeeping  during the operational phase will have to mop up the residues. This may cause some problems. The ion propulsion system will have been designed for stationkeeping, so the thrusters may be canted with respect to the in-plane and the out-of-plane directions. Also, their power consumption and thrust level may be rather low because they are supposed to be used while the payload is operating.

Radiation Damage

Al Yah 3’s current orbit has a period of 13 hours, so the spacecraft passes through the Earth’s radiation belts at least three and often four times per day – twice per orbital revolution. The solar arrays and the electronics are not designed for the radiation loads this will incur – there will be some degradation of the electronics. The solar array panels are still folded up and will stay that way until after the high thrust chemical propulsion system will have been used for the last time, in September.

This means that most of the solar array panels are to some extent shielded from the charged particle flux. The outermost panels will receive the full brunt, though – not just of radiation, but also of the other bit of nastiness that the exosphere has to offer: atomic oxygen. The question is to what extent this will degrade the spacecraft’s functionality, or the lifetime of its payload.

The solution would be to perform part of the perigee raising already now. This should be largely cost-neutral. All perigee raising that is performed now will not have to be performed in the final insertion. Raising the perigee to 2000 km costs 149 m/s, to 4000 km costs 293 m/s.

The raise might not have to be very large. ESA’s SMART-1’s spacecraft was launched in September 2003 and slowly spiralled its way up to the Moon using an ion thruster. It experienced significant radiation damage, but it was found that once the perigee altitude was above 4000 km, there was virtually no longer a problem with radiation. This may not be the case for Al Yah 3 – after all, SMART-1 was designed to survive this harsh environment – but it appears likely that also for Al Yah 3 such a raise in perigee altitude would significantly mitigate the radiation problem.

The downside of a perigee raise is that this will slow down the rate of change of the argument of perigee, so it will take much longer for that angle to drift to a value of 360, where the final orbital insertion can take place. With 4000 km perigee altitude, it might take until June 2019 before the insertion manoeuvres can be applied. Therefore, it appears advisable to find an acceptable compromise for the perigee raise: high enough to reduce the radiation damage but still low enough so that the GEO insertion is not delayed excessively.

Reduced Operational Lifetime?

Assuming that the ion propulsion will have to be enlisted for orbit topping, this will use up some Xenon propellant that was foreseen for stationkeeping. Then, as discussed, there will be some degradation of its electronics, unless the perigee altitude is raised pronto. This means a reduction of orbital lifetime, perhaps by several years. And there is of course inevitably also a belated entry into service, which likely will not take place before October 2018.

A Possible Way Forward

One way to proceed would be as follows:

  1. Ascertain whether a perigee raise is required to radiation mitigation. If yes, define the altitude to which the perigee must be raised in order to avoid excessive radiation damage. Some damage should be accepted.
  2. Once the waiting perigee altitude is selected, perform the raising manoeuvre asap.
  3. Wait until the argument of perigee has drifted to 360 deg. This will happen no sooner than mid-September 2018. It can be later if a perigee raising manoeuvre is performed.
  4. Perform the final insertion manoeuvres, using up all chemical propellant
  5. Deploy the solar arrays, commission the stationkeeping thrusters and perform orbit topping (if required).
  6. Commission the payload and commence normal operations.

Ich bin Luft- und Raumfahrtingenieur und arbeite bei einer Raumfahrtagentur als Missionsanalytiker. Alle in meinen Artikeln geäußerten Meinungen sind aber meine eigenen und geben nicht notwendigerweise die Sichtweise meines Arbeitgebers wieder.

5 Kommentare

  1. Hi Micheal. Me again. It seems that Al Yah 3 has started moving. Around 200km of increase on semi major axis coupled with slight changes in argument of perigee, inclination, and RAAN. It seems the impulse was executed at an odd right ascension (true anomaly of 329 deg on the initial orbit). I don’t understand the plan at all. Waiting out for the perigee to rotate is a good idea. But true it will take long.

    • Hello Mohannad. Thanks for the heads-up. Current perigee altitude 679 km, inclination 19.9899 deg, argument of perigee 236.1212 deg on 3 February 2018. Updates of the orbital states e.g., —> here.

      Looks as if they are raising the perigee and at the same time lowering the inclination a bit, though doing the inclination change now is not cost-efficient.

    • The orbit hasn’t been actively changed after they raised the perigee to 680 km. I think they might just have wanted to avoid the ISS orbit while waiting out the drift time needed until they can insert into geostationary orbit, or as close to that as their fuel situation allows.

  2. Hi Michael,

    It seems they have raised the perigee altitude to over 6,000km as of 07/02. I believe they are planning to have the spacecraft in its intended position well before September and are already correcting the orbit. After all, it helps that they were flying a lot more propellant than they needed for the specified lifetime.

    • Hello Lewis,

      Thanks for the notification! The orbital elements must have changed shortly after I checked yesterday (see, e.g., –> here) You are right; the perigee altitude is now over 6100 km. Incidentally, also the inclination is back to over 21.6 deg. Maybe that significantly lower value that was posted yesterday was incorrect. It doesn’t make much sense to me that the inclination should be reduced, then increased.

      At this perigee altitude, the drift rate of the argument of perigee is so much slower that it would take until late 2019 before the the a.o.p. approaches 360 deg. So you are right, they must be going the whole hog now, or at least, going somewhere near GEO and then performing orbit topping with the Hall Effect Trusters.

      I can’t imagine that they have enough propellant to reach geostationary orbit now, but as I computed –> here, even with limited delta-v a reasonably circular orbit with a single-digit inclination is feasible.

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