Lifetime of satellites is affected by orbital decay. By using electric propulsion which is more efficient than chemical propulsion, this means that we got more fuel correct the satellite from orbital decay. Does this mean that satellites with electric propulsion last longer? And how much longer?

For instance lifetime of GEO satellite is around 8-15 years. What about GEO satellite using ion thruster?

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    $\begingroup$ Orbital decay is a problem for LEO satellites, but not for GEO. $\endgroup$
    – Uwe
    Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 18:00
  • $\begingroup$ That is not necessarily true. GEO orbits change and decay due to atmospheric drag and the flatenning of the earth. GEO satellites require use of fuel to stay in orbit unless the orbit becomes eccentric which isnt always ideal $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 15, 2022 at 9:13

2 Answers 2


It can, but more commonly it is used to reduce the cost of the satellite. For instance, this article shows two satellites stacked on each other heading to GTO, which is only possible due to a significant weight savings that is achieved by using ion propulsion. In this configuration, one essentially gets 2 satellites for the price of 1.

  • $\begingroup$ Why don't we just use the electric propulsion to increase the lifetime instead? Won't this also help save up the cost of launching satellites to space too? $\endgroup$
    – newbie125
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 17:02
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    $\begingroup$ Fuel is only one of many contributors to lifetime. If you can launch 2 satellites for a bit more then the price of 1, then you effectively get 30 years of lifetime. They keep more fuel then is absolutely required as well, so... $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 17:19
  • $\begingroup$ The "2 for 1" applies only to the launch cost? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 18:05
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    $\begingroup$ The satellites themselves are also somewhat cheaper. The fuel is a significant factor in the mass, shrinking the size of the satellite shrinks the requirements for reaction wheels, structure, thermal control, etc. $\endgroup$
    – PearsonArtPhoto
    Commented Jan 29, 2018 at 18:17
  • $\begingroup$ Ok thanks! So reducing mass of satellites is more economical than leaving the satellite in space longer? Do scientists actually leave the satellites in space longer like for e.g. instead of using the 2 smaller satellites, 1 normal size satellite with EP is used in space instead for 30 years? Or this is not possible because the lifetime wil be affected by other factors like electrodes corrosion, etc? $\endgroup$
    – newbie125
    Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 2:01

This question seems to be aimed at two different things a) what is possible and b) what has commonly happened.

Its quite correct that electric propulsion has been used for all of the following purposes:

  1. Life extension
  2. Launch mass reduction
  3. Flying more payload mass for the same launch mass and lifetime

There are no general rules to this and it is certainly not true that mass saving has been more common than payload maximisation or life extension. There are only a couple of examples of clear mass reduction and the large bulk of previous missions are rather more mixed.

The following examples address each of these points and in some cases its hard to tell which of the purposes was adopted as the driving reason to use electric propulsion (EP). By the way, for that term we can include gridded ion thrusters, hall effect thrusters and also hydrazine arcjets and resistojets.

For the last fifteen years or more a 15 year life has been the standard adopted for most commercial geostationary communications satellite. A key life-limiting feature is inclination drift and so satellites with EP for North South station-keeping often have a larger propellant life margin than those with chemical propulsion only, often of the order of 5 - 15 years over the initial 15. i.e. there really are satellites with 25-30 year propellant lives! Recently longer design lifetimes have begun to appear as the baseline mission length, though typically this has only crept up a year or so from 15.

The mass reduction argument has changed recently. For NSSK over the last decades it depends upon the EP type. The satellites that have gridded ion engines and hall effect EP for NSSK only have tended to be the larger ones, in the range 4 - 6 tonnes. The point is that the overhead of using the higher Isp systems for NSSK is such that its more worthwhile for larger satellites. Satellites using Arcjets or Resistojets have been smaller.

In the last couple of years, with the introduction of EP for GTO-GEO transfer there have been different flight examples. ABS 3A and Eutelsat 115 West B achieved a given payload at a small mass to get on a dual launch on a Falcon 9. Viasat 2 appears to have gone for a maximum payload.


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