Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2015

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Aerospace Engineering Sciences

First Advisor

Dale Lawrence

Second Advisor

Eric Frew

Third Advisor

Nisar Ahmed


A heliogyro spacecraft is a specific type of solar sail that generates thrust from the reflection of solar photons. It consists of multiple long (200 to 600 meters), thin blades, similar to a helicopter. The heliogyro's blades remain in tension by spinning around the central hub of the spacecraft. The individual blades are pitched collectively or cyclically to produce the desired maneuver profile. The propellant-free heliogyro is a long-duration sustainable spacecraft whose maneuverability allows it to attain previously inaccessible orbits for traditional spacecraft. The blades are constructed from thin Mylar sheets, approximately 2.5 μm thick, which have very little inherent damping making it necessary to include some other way of attenuating blade vibration caused by maneuvering. The most common approach is to incorporate damping through the root pitch actuator. However, due to the small root pitch control torques required, on the order of 2 μNm, compared to the large friction torques associated with a root pitch actuator, it is challenging to design a root control system that takes friction into account and can still add damping to the blade.

The purpose of this research is to address the limitations of current control designs for a heliogyro spacecraft and to develop a physically realizable root pitch controller that effectively damps the torsional structural modes of a single heliogyro blade. Classical control theory in conjunction with impedance control techniques are used to design a position-source root pitch controller to dominate friction with high gains, wrapped with an outer loop that adds damping to the blade by sensing differential twist outboard of the blade root.

First, modal parameter characterization experiments were performed on a small-scale heliogyro blade in a high vacuum chamber to determine a how much inherent damping is present in the blade, which drove the selection of the damping constant used in the membrane ladder finite element model of the blade. The experimental damping ratio of the lowest frequency torsional mode is on the order of 0.005%, meaning there is almost no inherent damping in the blade. Next,the proximal blade twist feedback control design was successful in overcoming friction in the root actuator and added damping to the blade. The damping ratio for the lowest frequency torsional mode was increased from 0.001% to 0.09%, which is a significant amount for a heliogyro spacecraft. Finally, the camera sensor used for the proximal differential twist measurement proved to be feasible and quantization from these measurements only decreased the damping ratio to 0.075%.

This research provides the first indication that a physically realizable blade root controller can deal with friction in an effective way, thus taking a step towards advancing the technology readiness level of the heliogyro spacecraft.