Autonomous Orbital Navigation using Advanced Accelerometers

The future of deep space exploration depends upon technological advancement towards improving spacecraft’s autonomy and versatility. The horizon of our quest to explore space has been ever expanding. However, just like the ancient sea farers, we face a limitation on our path to space exploration. Space is vast, and it is difficult to navigate to a desired destination/target.

For any space mission, navigation relies primarily on external aids such as the Global Positioning Systems (GPS) or other resources, which directly or indirectly dependent upon ground communication or ground station control. This limits the range of our exploration capability, and requires specialized communication and ground-based navigation systems to achieve acceptable level of spaceflight safety. These additional systems not only require precious onboard resources, but are also subject to failures that can result in the Loss of Crew/Loss of Vehicle condition.

For next generation space navigation, there is a need to relieve the traditional navigation techniques by implementing autonomous navigation system onboard and thus reduce the risk level of Loss of Crew/Loss of Vehicle condition.

Autonomous navigation with reduced dependence on ground-based infrastructure can provide the capability to better optimize and control mission trajectories. Enhanced automation and versatility can be beneficial for both crewed and robotic space missions, and may result in increased scientific productivity over mission timeline.

There are some potential candidates for developing an autonomous orbital navigation system, of which gravity gradiometery and use of advanced accelerometers (such as cold atom accelerometers) is very prominent and promising.

The objective of this study is to explore the viability of using pairs of advanced accelerometers and onboard gravity field maps to autonomously determine orbital position and velocity for LEO, GEO, and other orbital regimes. This study evaluates the role of advanced accelerometers, used in recent gravity-mapping missions like GRACE-2 and GOCE, in developing and executing autonomous orbital navigation for different mission requirements.

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