Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2011

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Aerospace Engineering Sciences

First Advisor

Hanspeter Schaub

Second Advisor

Penina Axelrad

Third Advisor

Daniel Moorer


Spacecraft operating in a desired formation offers an abundance of attractive mission capabilities. One proposed method of controlling a close formation of spacecraft is with Coulomb (electrostatic) forces. The Coulomb formation flight idea utilizes charge emission to drive the spacecraft to kilovolt-level potentials and generate adjustable, micronewton- to millinewton-level Coulomb forces for relative position control. In order to advance the prospects of the Coulomb formation flight concept, this dissertation presents the design and implementation of a unique one-dimensional testbed. The disturbances of the testbed are identified and reduced below 1 mN. This noise level offers a near-frictionless platform that is used to perform relative motion actuation with electrostatics in a terrestrial atmospheric environment. Potentials up to 30 kV are used to actuate a cart over a translational range of motion of 40 cm. A challenge to both theoretical and hardware implemented electrostatic actuation developments is correctly modeling the forces between finite charged bodies, outside a vacuum. To remedy this, studies of Earth orbit plasmas and Coulomb force theory is used to derive and propose a model of the Coulomb force between finite spheres in close proximity, in a plasma. This plasma force model is then used as a basis for a candidate terrestrial force model. The plasma-like parameters of this terrestrial model are estimated using charged motion data from fixed-potential, single-direction experiments on the testbed. The testbed is advanced to the level of autonomous feedback position control using solely Coulomb force actuation. This allows relative motion repositioning on a flat and level track as well as an inclined track that mimics the dynamics of two charged spacecraft that are aligned with the principal orbit axis. This controlled motion is accurately predicted with simulations using the terrestrial force model. This demonstrates similarities between the partial charge shielding of space-based plasmas to the electrostatic screening in the laboratory atmosphere.