Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2015

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Aerospace Engineering Sciences

First Advisor

Hanspeter Schaub

Second Advisor

Penina Axelrad

Third Advisor

Nikolaus Correll

Fourth Advisor

Brandon Jones

Fifth Advisor

Jay McMahon


In recent years there has been a significant increase in interest in smaller satellites as lower cost alternatives to traditional satellites, particularly with the rise in popularity of the CubeSat. Due to stringent mass, size, and often budget constraints, these small satellites rely on making the most of inexpensive hardware components and sensors, such as coarse sun sensors (CSS) and magnetometers. More expensive high-accuracy sun sensors often combine multiple measurements, and use specialized electronics, to deterministically solve for the direction of the Sun. Alternatively, cosine-type CSS output a voltage relative to the input light and are attractive due to their very low cost, simplicity to manufacture, small size, and minimal power consumption. This research investigates using coarse sun sensors for performing robust attitude estimation in order to point a spacecraft at the Sun after deployment from a launch vehicle, or following a system fault.

As an alternative to using a large number of sensors, this thesis explores sun-direction estimation techniques with low computational costs that function well with underdetermined sets of CSS. Single-point estimators are coupled with simultaneous nonlinear control to achieve sun-pointing within a small percentage of a single orbit despite the partially underdetermined nature of the sensor suite. Leveraging an extensive analysis of the sensor models involved, sequential filtering techniques are shown to be capable of estimating the sun-direction to within a few degrees, with no a priori attitude information and using only CSS, despite the significant noise and biases present in the system. Detailed numerical simulations are used to compare and contrast the performance of the five different estimation techniques, with and without rate gyro measurements, their sensitivity to rate gyro accuracy, and their computation time.

One of the key concerns with reducing the number of CSS is sensor degradation and failure. In this thesis, a Modified Rodrigues Parameter based CSS calibration filter suitable for autonomous on-board operation is developed. The sensitivity of this method's accuracy to the available Earth albedo data is evaluated and compared to the required computational effort. The calibration filter is expanded to perform sensor fault detection, and promising results are shown for reduced resolution albedo models. All of the methods discussed provide alternative attitude, determination, and control system algorithms for small satellite missions looking to use inexpensive, small sensors due to size, power, or budget limitations.