Applications of responsive small satellites with MIT TILE electrospray propulsion

Ciara McGrath, Malcolm Macdonald, Paulo Lozano, David Miller, David Krejci

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


Responsive, manoeuvrable small satellites are an enabling technology for affordable, flexible and agile space missions with possible applications as wide-reaching as military reconnaissance, disaster response, and even wildlife tracking. This paper presents an analysis of some of these applications and is the outcome of a four month collaborative research visit at the Space Propulsion Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This work builds upon the analytical satellite manoeuvring strategy previously developed by the author, and analyses the potential capabilities and applications of small satellites equipped with the MIT TILE electrospray thruster. This previously developed analytical method enables the rapid investigation of the manoeuvres of a constellation of small satellites, with the goal of targeting a particular region on the Earth. A full overview of the solution space can be rapidly generated, allowing for the mission designer or operator to trade off all possible manoeuvres and select the best solution for their specific purpose. The MIT TILE is a modular, miniaturised MEMS based propulsion system for nanosatellites capable of producing 350μN nominal thrust for up to 200hrs operation. A standard TILE system weighs <450g and is sized to fit in 0.5U of a CubeSat. Three case studies are presented which demonstrate the effectiveness of responsive satellites in disaster response missions. The first case study considers a rapid flyover of Los Angeles following an earthquake. The results show a reduction in flyover time of almost 9 days using 21m/s Δ퐕 when compared with a non-manoeuvring satellite. A second case study considers a fire detection constellation of 24 satellites, which can manoeuvre to provide targeted coverage of a given region as required. Selecting the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland, UK as the region of interest, the results show that by manoeuvring the constellation to directly target the region, an increase in coverage is achievable over the entire target area, with total coverage times of some areas more than doubled from 3.4 minutes coverage in a week to 8.4 minutes. The final case study considers providing communication services to helicopters at a range of locations from the UK to Svalbard, Norway. The manoeuvring capabilities of the satellites are used to follow the helicopters over an eight week period. Results show that a single satellite using <150m/s ΔV can achieve 50 flyovers of the helicopters during the journey, compared with 24 flyovers if a static satellite is used. These missions are all shown to be possible with existing technologies, and they exemplify the dramatic improvement in performance that can be achieved by using manoeuvrable satellites.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication15th Reinventing Space Conference, Glasgow, United Kingdom, 24/10/17
Publication statusPublished - 26 Oct 2017


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