Low-Cost Autonomous Orbit Control About Mars: Initial Simulation Results


Interest in studying the possibility of extraterrestrial life has led to the re-emergence of the Red Planet as a major target of planetary exploration. Currently proposed missions in the post-2000 period are routinely calling for rendezvous with ascent craft, long-term orbiting of, and sample-return from Mars. Such missions would benefit greatly from autonomous orbit control as a means to reduce operations costs and enable contact with ground stations out of view of the Earth. This paper present results from initial simulations of autonomously controlled orbits around Mars, and points out possible uses of the technology and areas of routine Mars operations where such cost-conscious and robust autonomy could prove most effective.

These simulations have validated the approach and control philosophies used in the development of this autonomous orbit controller. Future work will refine the controller, accounting for systematic and random errors in the navigation of the spacecraft from the sensor suite, and will produce prototype flight code for inclusion on future missions.

A modified version of Microcosm’s commercially available High Precision Orbit Propagator (HPOP) was used in the preparation of these results due to its high accuracy and speed of operation. Control laws were developed to allow an autonomously controlled spacecraft to continuously control to a pre-defined orbit about Mars with near-optimal propellant usage. The control laws were implemented as an adjunct to HPOP.

The GSFC-produced 50 × 50 field model of the Martian gravitational potential was used in all simulations. The Martian atmospheric drag was modeled using an exponentially decaying atmosphere based on data from the Mars-GRAM NASA Ames model. It is hoped that the simple atmosphere model that was implemented can be significantly improved in the future so as to approach the fidelity of the Mars-GRAM model in its predictions of atmospheric density at orbital altitudes. Such additional work would take the form of solar flux (F10.7) and diurnal density dependencies. The autonomous controller is a derivative of the proprietary and patented Microcosm Earth-orbiting control methodology which will be implemented on the upcoming Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) UoSAT-12 and the NASA EO-1 spacecraft missions.

This work was funded by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory under a Phase I SBIR (96.1 07.02 9444) and by internal Microcosm R&D funds as well as earlier supporting work done under a variety of USAF Phillips Laboratory-sponsored contracts [4, 1, 2, 12].

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Dawson, Simon D., L. W. Early, C. Potterveld, H. J. Konigsmann. 1998. “Low-Cost Autonomous Orbit Control About Mars: Initial Simulation Results,” Proceedings of the 3rd International Conference on Low-Cost Planetary Missions.