Survey of the electrostatic tractor research for reorbiting passive GEO space objects

Abstract

The number of operational satellites and debris objects in the valuable geosynchronous ring has increased steadily over time such that active debris removal missions are necessary to ensure long-term stability. These objects are very large and tumbling, making any mission scenarios requiring physical contact very challenging. In the last 10 years, the concept of using an electrostatic tractor has been investigated extensively. With the electrostatic tractor concept, active charge emission is employed to simultaneously charge the tug or services vehicle, while aiming the charge exhaust onto the passive space debris object to charge it as well. The resulting electrostatic force has been explored to actuate this debris object to a disposal orbit or to detumble the object, all without physical contact. This paper provides a survey of the related research and reviews the charging concepts, the associated electrostatic force and torque modeling, and the feedback control developments, as well as the charge sensing research.

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Correspondence to M. Bengtson.

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Miles Bengtson is a graduate research assistant and NDSEG Fellow at the Aerospace Engineering Science Department, the University of Colorado, Boulder. He graduated with distinction with M.S. and B.S. degrees in engineering physics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, FL. Miles is a space scholar at the Air Force Research Laboratory, an AIAA member, and an alumnus of the International Space University. His research interests include spacecraft-plasma interactions, charged astrodynamics, and experimentation.

Kieran Wilson is a graduate research assistant at the Autonomous Vehicle Systems (AVS) Laboratory of the University of Colorado, Boulder. He received his bachelor's degrees in aerospace and mechanical engineering from the University of Florida, in 2016. He has worked at Sandia National Laboratories, SpaceX, and Sierra Nevada Corporation. Research interests are in charged astrodynamics, formation flight, and spacecraft guidance, navigation, and control.

Joseph Hughes received his B.S. degrees in physics and mechanical engineering from Walla Walla University in College Place, WA and is now a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado Boulder at the Aerospace Engineering Sciences department. He has been awarded the John A. Vise award, the John V. Breakwell travel award, and has served as the Lead TA for the aerospace department. His current research interests include spacecraft charging, electrostatic force and torque estimation, and Coulomb astrodynamics.

Dr. Schaub is the Glenn L. Murphy Chair of Engineering at the University of Colorado and is the current graduate chair of the Aerospace Engineering Sciences department. He has over 20 years of research experience, of which 4 years are at Sandia National Laboratories. His research interests are in nonlinear dynamics and control, astrodynamics, relative motion dynamics, as well as relative motion sensing. This has led to about 137 journals and 208 conference publications, as well as a 3rd edition textbook on analytical mechanics of space systems. In the last decade, he has developed the emerging field of charged astrodynamics. Dr. Schaub has been the ADCS lead in the CICERO mission and the ADCS algorithm lead on a Mars mission. He has been awarded the H. Joseph Smead Faculty Fellowship, the Provosts Faculty Achievement Award, the faculty assembly award for excellence in teaching, as well as the Outstanding Faculty Advisor Award. He is an AAS fellow and AIAA associate fellow, and has won the AIAA/ASEE Atwood Educator Award, as well as the AIAA Mechanics and Control of Flight Award. He currently serves as the editor-in-chief for the AIAA Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets.

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Bengtson, M., Wilson, K., Hughes, J. et al. Survey of the electrostatic tractor research for reorbiting passive GEO space objects. Astrodyn 2, 291–305 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42064-018-0030-0

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Keywords

  • electrostatics
  • geosynchronous orbit
  • debris
  • control