Accuracy and Efficiency Comparison of Six Numerical Integrators for Propagating Perturbed Orbits

Ahmed M. Atallah, Robyn M. Woollands, Tarek A. Elgohary, John L. Junkins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We present the results of a comprehensive study in which the precision and efficiency of six numerical integration techniques, both implicit and explicit, are compared for solving the gravitationally perturbed two-body problem in astrodynamics. Solution of the perturbed two-body problem is fundamental for applications in space situational awareness, such as tracking orbit debris and maintaining a catalogue of over twenty thousand pieces of orbit debris greater than the size of a softball, as well as for prediction and prevention of future satellite collisions. The integrators used in the study are a 5th/4th and 8th/7th order Dormand-Prince, an 8th order Gauss-Jackson, a 12th/10th order Runga-Kutta-Nystrom, Variable-step Gauss Legendre Propagator and the Adaptive-Picard-Chebyshev methods. Four orbit test cases are considered, low Earth orbit, Sun-synchronous orbit, geosynchronous orbit, and a Molniya orbit. A set of tests are done using a high fidelity spherical-harmonic gravity (70 × 70) model with and without an exponential cannonball drag model. We present three metrics for quantifying the solution precision achieved by each integration method. These are conservation of the Hamiltonian for conservative systems, round-trip-closure, and the method of manufactured solutions. The efficiency of each integrator is determined by the number of function evaluations required for convergence to a solution with a prescribed accuracy. The present results show the region of applicability of the selected methods as well as their associated computational cost. Comparison results are concisely presented in several figures and are intended to provide the reader with useful information for selecting the best integrator for their purposes and problem specific requirements in astrodynamics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)511-538
Number of pages28
JournalJournal of the Astronautical Sciences
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Numerical integration
  • Orbit propagation
  • Picard-Chebyshev

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Space and Planetary Science


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