Skip to main content

Visionary Space Systems: Orbital Dynamics at Extremes of Spacecraft Length-Scale

Final Report Summary - VISIONSPACE (Visionary Space Systems: Orbital Dynamics at Extremes of Spacecraft Length-Scale)

The growing utilisation of space as a platform for science, telecommunications, Earth observation and navigation is a direct result of the application of the tools of classical orbital dynamics. Our understanding of classical orbital dynamics can generate families of orbits which now deliver essential scientific and commercial products such as high bandwidth data-links, high resolution Earth imagery and precise global positioning. While such exciting space applications have transformed a range of both commercial and public services, the future exploitation of space requires new innovations both in spacecraft technologies, and in fundamental orbital dynamics.

The VISIONSPACE project has developed radically new approaches to orbital dynamics at extremes of spacecraft length-scale to underpin future products and services for space science, telecommunications, Earth observation and navigation. These new approaches are key since future space systems will require an entirely new approach to orbital dynamics to understand the behaviour of systems such as swarms of interacting micro-spacecraft (length-scale of order 0.01 m) and extremely large, deployable gossamer spacecraft (length-scale of order 100 m). At these extremes of spacecraft length-scale, perturbations such as atmospheric drag, the pressure of sunlight and electromagnetic effects can be of the same order of magnitude as the central gravitational force. The highly perturbed nature of the orbits of such future space systems enables rich new families of orbits which can then be exploited to deliver radically new space products and services.

For example, the VISIONSPACE project has developed a new understanding of the behaviour of swarms of ‘smart dust’ devices pushed by the pressure of sunlight. By modulating the optical properties of the surface of such devices their orbits can be controlled and spatial patterns emerge to provide application in space science, for massively parallel measurements of the properties of the Earth geomagnetic tail. At larger length-scales families of orbits have been devised for spacecraft with continuous low thrust propulsion, allowing them to hover over the poles of the Earth for climate science monitoring. Finally, at the largest of lengths-scales ultra-low energy trajectories have been found which can enable the capture of small near Earth asteroids for future resource utilisation, for example space-based climate Geoengineering ventures.