Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2017

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Hanspeter Schaub

Second Advisor

Jay McMahon

Third Advisor

Jeffrey Parker

Fourth Advisor

Elizabeth Bradley

Fifth Advisor

Zoltan Sternovsky


In recent years, there is a growing interest in active debris removal and on-orbit servicing of Earth orbiting assets. The growing need for such approaches is often exemplified by the Iridium-Kosmos collision in 2009 that generated thousands of debris fragments. There exists a variety of active debris removal and on-orbit servicing technologies in development. Conventional docking mechanisms and mechanical capture by actuated manipulators, exemplified by NASA's Restore-L mission, require slow target tumble rates or more aggressive circumnavigation rate matching. The tumble rate limitations can be overcome with flexible capture systems such nets, harpoons, or tethers yet these systems require complex deployment, towing, and/or interfacing strategies to avoid servicer and target damage. Alternatively, touchless methods overcome the tumble rate limitations by provide detumble control prior to a mechanical interface.

This thesis explores electrostatic detumble technology to touchlessly reduce large target rotation rates of Geostationary satellites and debris. The technical challenges preceding flight implementation largely reside in the long-duration formation flying guidance, navigation, and control of a servicer spacecraft equipped with electrostatic charge transfer capability. Leveraging prior research into the electrostatic charging of spacecraft, electrostatic detumble control formulations are developed for both axisymmetric and generic target geometries. A novel relative position vector and associated relative orbit control approach is created to manage the long-duration proximity operations. Through detailed numerical simulations, the proposed detumble and relative motion control formulations demonstrate detumble of several thousand kilogram spacecraft tumbling at several degrees per second in only several days.

The availability, either through modeling or sensing, of the relative attitude, relative position, and electrostatic potential are among key concerns with implementation of electrostatic detumble control on-orbit. Leveraging an extended Kalman filter scheme, the relative position information is readily obtained. In order to touchlessly acquire the target electrostatic potential, a nested two-time scale Kalman filter is employed to provide real-time estimates of both relative position and electrostatic potential while on-orbit. The culmination of the presented control formulations for generic spacecraft geometries, the proximity and formation flying control capability, and the availability of necessary state information provide significant contributions towards the viability of electrostatic detumble mission concepts.