Spacecraft Swarm Research Earns AE Graduate Student NASA Fellowship

2011-07-08

AE graduate student Daniel J. Morgan has been awarded a fellowship from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for his research into swarms of small spacecraft. 

Morgan’s project, “Dynamics and Controls of Swarms of Femtosatelllites,” was successful in securing one of the highly competitive NASA Space Technology Research Fellowships, awarded to projects showing significant promise for future application toward NASA missions and strategic goals. Selected candidates are required to perform research on their campuses and spend some time at NASA Centers and/or not-for-profit research and development laboratories. AE Assistant Prof. Soon-Jo Chung is advising Morgan.
 

AE graduate student Daniel J. Morgan
AE graduate student Daniel J. Morgan

Formation flying is the use of several, small spacecraft for a mission rather than a single, large spacecraft. This method has become popular over the past decade because it is cheaper to launch smaller spacecraft. Missions requiring space telescopes are examples of those in which formation flying would be a preferable alternative. While launching a large telescope can be either very expensive or impossible to do, several smaller telescopes can be launched and placed close together in order to imitate a larger telescope.
 
Recently, Morgan and Chung have been working with Dr. Fred Hadaegh’s team at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop the idea of spacecraft swarms, consisting of hundreds to thousands of very small spacecraft, about the size of an iphone. By using so many identical spacecraft, the cost of each and the overall cost of the mission decrease. Another advantage of flying so many spacecraft is that the loss of a single spacecraft is much less significant.
 
Spacecraft swarms provide new challenges that have not existed in previous space missions. First, the large number of spacecraft working together in a small area greatly increases the probability that some will collide. Additionally, the spacecraft must be extremely small in order for the mission to be more cost effective than flying a single craft. The small size of the spacecraft results in limited computing and communication capabilities.
 
Morgan’s goal for the project is to develop guidance (going from one formation to another) and control (maintaining the current formation) methods that prevent collisions and minimize the amount of fuel used. Preventing collisions is especially challenging because the probability of collisions increases in ratio to the large number of spacecraft. Also, it is difficult for individual spacecraft to know where all the other spacecraft are at any given time. Finally, the methods must be fuel-efficient because the small crafts are limited in the amount of fuel they can carry.
 
The Space Technology Research Grants Program will accelerate the development of "push" technologies to support the future space science and exploration needs of NASA, other government agencies and the commercial space sector. Innovative efforts with high risk and high payoff are encouraged.