A Method for the Experimental Characterisation of Novel Drag-Reducing Materials for Very Low Earth Orbits using the Satellite for Orbital Aerodynamics Research (SOAR) Mission

Nicholas H. Crisp, Peter C.E. Roberts, Virginia Hanessian, Valeria Sulliotti-Linner, Georg H. Herdrich, Daniel Garcia-Alminana, Dhiren Kataria, Simon Seminari

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Satellite for Orbital Aerodynamics Research (SOAR) is a 3U CubeSat mission that aims to investigate the gas-surface interactions (GSIs) of different materials in the very low Earth orbit environment (VLEO), i.e. below 450 km. Improving the understanding of these interactions is critical for the development of satellites that can operate sustainably at these lower orbital altitudes, with particular application to future Earth observation and communications missions. SOAR
has been designed to perform the characterisation of the aerodynamic coefficients of four different materials at different angles of incidence with respect to the flow and at different altitudes in the VLEO altitude range. Two conventional and erosion-resistant materials (borosilicate glass and sputter-coated gold) have first been selected to support the validation of the ground-based Rarefied Orbital Aerodynamics Research (ROAR) facility. Two further, novel materials have been selected for their potential to reduce the drag experienced in orbit whilst also remaining resistant to the detrimental effects of atomic oxygen erosion in VLEO. In this paper the uncertainty associated with the experimental method for determining the aerodynamic coefficients of satellite with different configurations of the test materials from on-orbit data is estimated for different assumed gas-surface interaction properties. The presented results indicate that for reducing surface accommodation coefficients the experimental uncertainty on the drag coefficient determination generally increases, a result of increased aerodynamic attitude perturbations.
This effect is also exacerbated by the high atmospheric density at low orbital altitude (i.e. 200 km), resulting in high experimental uncertainty. Co-rotated steerable fin configurations are shown to provide generally lower experimental uncertainty than counter-rotated configurations, with the lowest uncertainties expected in the mid-VLEO altitudes (∼300 km). For drag coefficient experiments, configurations with two fins oriented at 90° were found to allow the best differentiation between surfaces with different GSI performance. In comparison,
the determination of the lift coefficient is found to be improve as the altitude is reduced from 400 km to 200 km.
These experiments were also found to show the best expected performance in determining the GSI properties of different materials. SOAR was deployed into an orbit of 421 km x 415 km with 51.6° inclination on 14 June 2021. This orbit will naturally decay allowing access to different altitudes over the lifetime of the mission. The results presented in this paper will be used to plan the experimental schedule for this mission and to maximise the scientific output.
Original languageEnglish
JournalCEAS Space Journal
Publication statusPublished - 7 Apr 2022


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