Ananthalakshmy Krishna Moorthy, Worcester Polytechnic Institute


A wide variety of scientifically interesting missions could be enabled by orbital flight altitudes of 150 – 250 km. For the present work, this range of altitudes is defined as extremely Low Earth Orbit (eLEO). The use of low-cost nanosatellites (mass < 10 kg) has reduced the cost barrier to orbital flight over the last decade and the present study investigates the feasibility of using primarily commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware to build a nanosat specifically to allow extended mission times in eLEO. CubeSats flying in the lower thermosphere have the potential to enable close monitoring of the Earth’s surface for scientific, commercial, and defense-related missions. The results of this research show that the proper selection of primary and attitude control thrusters combined with precise control techniques result in significant extension of the orbital life of a CubeSat in eLEO, thus allowing detailed explorations of the atmosphere. In this study, the orbit maintenance controller is designed to maintain a mission-averaged, mean altitude of 244 km. An estimate is made of the primary disturbance torque due to aerodynamic drag using a high-fidelity calculation of the rarefied gas drag based on a Direct Simulation, Monte-Carlo simulation. The primary propulsion system consists of a pair of electrospray thrusters providing a combined thrust of 0.12 mN at 1 W. Results of a trade study to select the best attitude control option indicate pulsed plasma thrusters operating at 1 W are preferable to reaction wheels or mangetorquers at the selected altitude. An extended Kalman filter is used for orbital position and spacecraft attitude estimations. The attitude determination system consists of sun sensors, magnetometers, gyroscopes serving as attitude sensors. The mission consists of two phases. In Phase I, a 4U CubeSat is deployed from a 414 km orbit and uses the primary propulsion system to deorbit to an initial altitude within the targeted range of 244 +/- 10 km. Phase I lasts 12.73 days with the propulsion system consuming 5.6 g of propellant to deliver a ∆V of 28.12 m/s. In Phase II the mission is maintained until the remaining 25.2 g of propellant is consumed. Phase II lasts for 30.27 days, corresponding to a ∆V of 57.22 m/s with a mean altitude of 244 km. The mean altitude for an individual orbit over the entire mission was found to vary from a maximum of 252 km to a minimum of 236 km. Using this approach, a primary mission life of 30.27 days could be achieved, compared with 3.1 days without primary propulsion.