Using mission analysis software GMAT to develop skills in astrodynamics

L. Berthoud, J. Walsh

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference Contribution (Conference Proceeding)


Learning about the geometry and kinematics of orbital motion (or 'astrodynamics') is challenging due to its 3D nature. To address this, the University of Bristol have developed 3D orbit visualization exercises using a free NASA tool called 'General Mission Analysis Tool' (GMAT). The aims are to develop skills in manipulation of orbits and to focus on areas subject to common misconceptions. The skills targeted include: varying orbital elements and observing the effect, interpreting ground tracks, exploring features of sun-synchronous, Molniya and geostationary orbits, adding pro and retrograde burns and seeing the effects, performing inclination changes and Hohmann transfers. Common misconceptions include: confusing the orbital elements, thinking that satellites move faster in their orbits with increasing altitude, thinking that geostationary satellites are not moving (relative to stars), forgetting that Earth rotates when considering ground tracks, thinking that a Hohmann transfer is composed of one burn only, thinking that for a chaser spacecraft to catch up with a target in orbit, it must accelerate. Feedback from students is discussed, along with proposals for further work to assess the extent to which misconceptions have been addressed. Overall, GMAT exercises offer a promising way to visualise orbits and improve conceptual understanding of astrodynamics.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of the 45th SEFI Annual Conference 2017 - Education Excellence for Sustainability, SEFI 2017
PublisherEuropean Society for Engineering Education (SEFI)
Number of pages8
ISBN (Electronic)9789899887572
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2017
Event45th Annual Conference of the European Society for Engineering Education, SEFI 2017 - Angra do Heroismo, Terceira Island, Azores, Portugal
Duration: 18 Sep 201721 Sep 2017


Conference45th Annual Conference of the European Society for Engineering Education, SEFI 2017
CityAngra do Heroismo, Terceira Island, Azores


  • 3D visualization
  • Astrodynamics
  • GMAT
  • Orbit modelling

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