The James Watt School of Engineering has a worldwide reputation as a centre of excellence in orbital mechanics and space systems engineering research. We carry out internationally leading, high profile, application driven research as well as investigating more futuristic ideas and visionary concepts. Several research topics are covered across Aerospace Sciences and Systems, Power & Energy divisions, including: near-Earth object missions, debris mitigation, solar power satellites, orbital dynamics, formation flying, spacecraft attitude and control, autonomous systems, surface robotics. We have strong UK and EU industrial links (UK Space Agency, EPSRC, Airbus, German Aerospace Center (DLR), European Space Agency (ESA), Clyde Space, Alba Orbital) which support our ground-breaking research activities.
Planetary exploration and science
The planetary exploration and science theme focusses on developing the techniques needed to understand bodies in space, including our own Earth.
We are working to provide the new tools and instruments that will be needed to both drill and polish rocks on Mars, which will in turn allow scientists to learn about the conditions extant during the planet’s more Earth-like past and facilitate the search for traces of liquid water, a thicker atmosphere, and maybe even life.
We are also studying ways to protect the Earth from potentially hazardous asteroids. A number of possible mechanisms have been proposed for deflecting or breaking up these rogue objects: some require the use of a spacecraft with some means of transferring energy and momentum to the object while other methods would be to fly, for months or even years, a large spacecraft alongside the object, nudging it slightly off its collision course. For increased reliability of a mitigation mission, we are looking at combining different deflection techniques into a dual deflection act campaign.
Meanwhile, closer to home, we are developing deployable antennae that will allow future spacecraft to sound the Earth’s ionosphere and pave the way for new Earth observation capabilities. We are also investigating the use of constellations of small satellites to monitor space weather and reduce the effects of solar storms on everyday activities.
The debris mitigation theme seeks to help control one of the biggest threats to the near-Earth environment: the build-up of old spacecraft and spacecraft fragments that are left in orbit at the end of missions. To achieve this, research is carried out in two different directions: prevention and mitigation.
We are developing systems that prevent old spacecraft from staying in orbit, by generating the tiny forces they need to manoeuvre away, even though they may no longer have any fuel left. Our approach is to use sails, such as the commercial Aeoldos module, which will use the tenuous upper atmosphere to produce a drag force which acts against the spacecraft’s motion and cause it to dip into the lower atmosphere and burn up.
Currently existing debris fragments, instead, can stay in orbit for decades, and have to be tracked to mitigate their effect: even if tiny, they can potentially destroy operative spacecraft in case of collision, due to their extremely high velocity. Predicting the orbital evolution of the debris is challenging, especially when they are light and flexible: in fact, perturbations like atmospheric and solar pressure act change their orbital parameters rather unpredictably. Research is being carried out to improve the long-term prediction of such debris.
Space power systems
Reliable energy supply, capable to meet ever increasing demands, is of fundamental importance for prosperous and peaceful worldwide development. The solar power satellite (SPS) is conceptually very simple: a large satellite designed to act as an electric power plant in orbit. A space solar energy collector converts the solar energy into electricity, and then to microwaves, which are beamed to a large antenna array on the ground, connected to existing electric power networks.
In contrast to existing renewable power sources, solar power from space is highly promising in its 24-hour availability and CO2 clean nature as a new energy system that can guarantee the sustainable development of our planet. In space, collection of the Sun’s energy is unaffected by the obstructions and thus solar irradiance is 144% of the maximum terrestrial irradiance, and the solar collection panels can be exposed to a consistently high amount of solar radiation.
Despite its conceptual simplicity, huge engineering challenges have to be overcome. Our research combines innovative technology, modern orbital dynamics and systems engineering in a multi-disciplinary optimisation approach, in order to select the most advantageous design points of future solar power satellites.
Orbital dynamics, control and formation flight
This research theme covers a number of topics related to the theoretical and numerical study of spacecraft orbital dynamics.
We are particularly interested in spacecraft which have a large cross-sectional area with respect to their mass. One family is made of the so-called solar sails, in which solar radiation pressure is collected by a large lightweight reflective membrane deployed from the spacecraft. Solar sailing is a very promising technology for spacecraft propulsion.
These devices provide a small, but continuous, acceleration to the spacecraft. As a consequence, the resulting orbits do not follow well-known Keplerian laws, and the same happens when considering multi-body environments like the Sun-Earth or Sun-Moon systems. For these reasons, we are interested in techniques for space mission design and trajectory optimisation.
We design attitude control and estimation algorithms. In the past, we developed detumbling and sun tracking algorithms for UKube-1. Our main research interest is implementing efficient attitude control and estimation algorithms for small satellites.
We are also investigating the control of swarms and constellations of spacecraft. Applications of formation flight include Earth observation and telecommunications. In addition, blue-sky research in this field combines formation flight with new propulsion technologies, like solar sailing but also electro-magnetic control, with the aim of extending the mission lifetime.