In recent years, the lunar explorer programs, suspended for a long time, have resumed again with the rapid development of low cost and high-level technologies. As a result, several nations have made a success of lunar exploration programs with their own orbiters. Unlike a satellite orbiting the earth, the optimal design of an onboard propulsion system of a lunar orbiter is a major issue because it is not simple to make the orbiter arrive accurately at another planet far from the earth. Hence, a close attention is required to select and develop an appropriate type of the onboard propulsion system based on given mission requirements of a lunar orbiter. To do this, this study first surveys several lunar orbiters launched since 1990 and their major mission requirements. Then, it summarizes the technical trends of the onboard propulsion systems of the recent lunar orbiters and their key design and performance specifications through trade-off studies. By comparing these features, the present study investigates which lunar mission requirements are critically important, and how they can effect on the overall performance of an onboard propulsion system. Based on these investigations the major objective of the present study intends ultimately to set up a fundamental baseline in selecting and developing an appropriate type of onboard propulsion system of a lunar orbiter. © 2011 Elsevier Ltd.
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