, Volume 106, Issue 1, pp 69-88
Date: 27 Nov 2009

Multiple spacecraft rendezvous maneuvers by differential drag and low thrust engines

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A novel two-phase hybrid controller is proposed to optimize propellant consumption during multiple spacecraft rendezvous maneuvers in Low Earth Orbit. This controller exploits generated differentials in aerodynamic drag on each involved chaser spacecraft to effect a propellant-free trajectory near to the target spacecraft during the first phase of the maneuver, and then uses a fuel optimal control strategy via continuous low-thrust engines to effect a precision dock during the second phase. In particular, by varying the imparted aerodynamic drag force on each of the chaser spacecraft, relative differential accelerations are generated between each chaser and the target spacecraft along two of the three translational degrees of freedom. In order to generate this required differential, each chaser spacecraft is assumed to include a system of rotating flat panels. Additionally, each chaser spacecraft is assumed to have continuous low-thrust capability along the three translational degrees of freedom and full-axis attitude control. Sample simulations are presented to support the validity and robustness of the proposed hybrid controller to variations in the atmospheric density along with different spacecraft masses and ballistic coefficients. Furthermore, the proposed hybrid controller is validated against a complete nonlinear orbital model to include relative navigation errors typical of carrier-phase differential GPS (CDGPS). Limitations of the proposed controller appear relative to the target spacecraft’s orbit eccentricity and a general characterization of the atmospheric density. Bounds on these variables are included to provide a framework within which the proposed hybrid controller can effect an extremely low propellant rendezvous of multiple chaser spacecraft to a desired target spacecraft.