Seeking Cheaper, Nimbler Satellites and Safer Disposal of Space Debris
A new research program at Rensselaer seeks to
define the next-generation of low-orbit satellites that are more maneuverable, cheaper to launch, easier to hide, and longer lived.
Additionally, this research holds the promise of guiding dead satellites and other space debris more safely to the Earth’s surface.
Led by Riccardo Bevilacqua, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering, the research team is challenged with developing new theories for exploiting the forces of atmospheric drag to maneuver satellites in low-Earth orbits. Atmospheric drag is present up to 500 kilometers of altitude. Using this drag to alter the trajectory of a satellite alleviates the need to burn propellant to perform such action. Decreasing the amount of required propellant will make satellites weigh less, which reduces the overall cost of launching satellites into orbit.
Additionally, this new research holds the promise of using drag to control and maneuver dead satellites that are inoperable or have run out of propellant.
This project, titled “Propellant-free Spacecraft Relative Maneuvering via Atmospheric Differential Drag,” is funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research Young Investigator Research Program with an expected three-year, $334,000 grant.
“Using differential drag to maneuver multi-spacecraft systems in low-Earth orbit is a new, non-chemical way to potentially reduce or even eliminate the need for propellant,” said Bevilacqua. “Reducing the satellite’s overall mass at launch, by carrying less propellant, allows for easier, cheaper, and faster access to space. In addition, the ability to maneuver without expulsion of gases enables spacecraft missions that are harder to detect.”
“Reducing the satellite’s overall mass at launch, by carrying less propellant, allows for easier, cheaper, and faster access to space. In addition, the ability to maneuver without expulsion of gases enables spacecraft missions that are harder to
Satellites experience drag while in low-Earth orbits, and this drag causes their orbits to decay—sending the satellites closer and closer to Earth. Bevilacqua wants to take advantage of this drag by attaching large retractable panels to satellites. When deployed, these panels would work like a parachute and create more drag in order to slow down or maneuver the satellite.