A dynamical systems theory analysis of Coulomb spacecraft formations



Journal Title

Journal ISSN

Volume Title



Coulomb forces acting between close flying charged spacecraft provide near zero propellant relative motion control, albeit with added nonlinear coupling and limited controllability. This novel concept has numerous potential applications, but also many technical challenges. In this dissertation, two- and three-craft Coulomb formations near GEO are investigated, using a rotating Hill frame dynamical model, that includes Debye shielding and differential gravity. Aspects of dynamical systems theory and optimization are applied, for insights regarding stability, and how inherent nonlinear complexities may be beneficially exploited to maintain and maneuver these electrostatic formations.

Periodic relative orbits of two spacecraft, enabled by open-loop charge functions, are derived for the first time. These represent a desired extension to more substantially studied, constant charge, static Coulomb formations. An integral of motion is derived for the Hill frame model, and then applied in eliminating otherwise plausible periodic solutions. Stability of orbit families are evaluated using Floquet theory, and asymptotic stability is shown unattainable analytically.

Weak stability boundary dynamics arise upon adding Coulomb forces to the relative motion problem, and therefore invariant manifolds are considered, in part, to more efficiently realize formation shape changes. A methodology to formulate and solve two-craft static Coulomb formation reconfigurations, as parameter optimization problems with minimum inertial thrust, is demonstrated. Manifolds are sought to achieve discontinuous transfers, which are then differentially corrected using charge variations and impulsive thrusting. Two nonlinear programming algorithms, gradient and stochastic, are employed as solvers and their performances are compared.

Necessary and sufficient existence criteria are derived for three-craft collinear Coulomb formations, and a stability analysis is performed for the resulting discrete equilibrium cases. Each specified configuration is enabled by non-unique charge values, and so a method to compute minimum power solutions is outlined. Certain equilibrium cases are proven maintainable using only charge control, and feedback stabilized simulations demonstrate this. Practical scenarios for extending the optimal reconfiguration method are also discussed.

Lastly, particular Hill frame model trajectories are integrated in an inertial frame with primary perturbations and interpolated Debye length variations. This validates qualitative stability properties, reveals particular periodic solutions to exhibit nonlinear boundedness, and illustrates higher-fidelity solution accuracies.