Generalized Orbit Rendezvous Research

The goal is to develop a method for orbital rendezvous that is general, efficient, and can be executed autonomously. It is key that this method can be applied to any arbitrary orbits, uses a similar amount of Delva-V to other methods or better, and does not require ground calculation of maneuvers. We are developing a method that uses a coordinate-free representation of the orbit as a basis for discrete feedback control. The primary applications are for small spacecraft missions, but it could be used for any autonomous mission, and would make operations such as establishing constellations, rendezvous with a target, and on-orbit assembly easier to execute. The method will be demonstrated for executing orbital rendezvous on the Pathfinder for Autonomous Rendezvous (PAN) mission (link).

Mathematics of orbital rendezvous

Orbital dynamics and geometry make it such that each maneuver can only reach orbits that intersect the starting orbit, and at least two maneuvers are required to transfer to any arbitrary orbit. As a result, testing shows that feedback control can be inefficient when the initial and destination orbits are sufficiently far apart. Thus, we are exploring orbit transfer trajectories from a mathematical perspective to search for an efficient way to calculate optimal orbit transfers. Integrating this calculation is the next step in generalizing our orbit transfer method.