Fast and precise propagation of satellite orbits is required for mission design, orbit determination and payload data analysis. We present a method to improve the computational performance of numerical propagators and simultaneously maintain the accuracy level required by any particular application. This is achieved by determining the positional accuracy needed and the corresponding acceptable error in acceleration on the basis of the mission requirements, removing those perturbation forces whose effect is negligible compared to the accuracy requirement, implementing an efficient and precise algorithm for the harmonic synthesis of the geopotential gradient (i.e., the gravitational acceleration) and adjusting the tolerance of the numerical propagator to achieve the prescribed accuracy level with minimum cost. In particular, to achieve the optimum balance between accuracy and computational performance, the number of geopotential spherical harmonics to retain is adjusted during the integration on the basis of the accuracy requirement. The contribution of high-order harmonics decays rapidly with altitude, so the minimum expansion degree meeting the target accuracy decreases with height. The optimum degree for each altitude is determined by making the truncation error of the harmonic synthesis equal to the admissible acceleration error. This paper presents a detailed description of the technique and test cases highlighting its accuracy and efficiency.
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