Seeking Cheaper, Nimbler Satellites and Safer Disposal of Space Debris
Engineering Researchers at Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute Secure Grant To Develop New System for
Maneuvering Low-Orbit Spacecraft Without Using
A new research program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
seeks to define the next-generation of low-orbit satellites
that are more maneuverable, cheaper to launch, easier to hide,
and longer lived. Additionally, this research holds the promise
of guiding dead satellites and other space debris more safely
to the Earth’s surface.
Led by Rensselaer faculty member Riccardo
Bevilacqua, the research team is challenged with developing
new theories for exploiting the forces of atmospheric drag to
maneuver satellites in low-Earth orbits. Atmospheric drag is
present up to 500 kilometers of altitude. Using this drag to
alter the trajectory of a satellite alleviates the need to burn
propellant to perform such action. Decreasing the amount of
required propellant will make satellites weigh less, which
reduces the overall cost of launching satellites into
Additionally, this new research holds the promise of using
drag to control and maneuver dead satellites that are
inoperable or have run out of propellant.
This project, titled “Propellant-free Spacecraft Relative
Maneuvering via Atmospheric Differential Drag,” is funded by
the Air Force Office of Scientific
Research (AFOSR) Young Investigator Research Program with
an expected three-year, $334,000 grant.
“Using differential drag to maneuver multi-spacecraft
systems in low-Earth orbit is a new, non-chemical way to
potentially reduce or even eliminate the need for propellant,”
said Bevilacqua, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical,
Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering (MANE) at Rensselaer.
“Reducing the satellite’s overall mass at launch, by carrying
less propellant, allows for easier, cheaper, and faster access
to space. In addition, the ability to maneuver without
expulsion of gases enables spacecraft missions that are harder
Satellites experience drag while in low-Earth orbits, and
this drag causes their orbits to decay—sending the satellites
closer and closer to Earth. Bevilacqua wants to take advantage
of this drag by attaching large retractable panels to
satellites. When deployed, these panels would work like a
parachute and create more drag in order to slow down or
maneuver the satellite.
This type of system could be built into new satellites, or
even designed as a separate device that could be attached to
existing satellites already in orbit. The drag panel system
would use electrical power—which can be recharged via solar
panels—to perform its maneuvers. The system would not require
any fuel or propellant. Bevilacqua said such a device could be
attached to a dead satellite already in freefall, in order to
help control where the satellite will land on the Earth’s
This new project is a key component of Bevilacqua’s overall
research portfolio, which focuses on the guidance, navigation,
and control of multiple spacecraft. The overall trend in
spacecraft design is to go smaller and smaller, he said.
Today’s satellites are generally one big unit. In the future,
satellite systems likely will be made up of many smaller
satellites that join together and form one larger device. This
type of modular system allows for individual components to be
replaced or upgraded while the overall system remains
functional in orbit. One of the major challenges to realizing
this vision is developing a propellant-free means to maneuver
small satellites so they’re able to rendezvous and join with
one another. Differential drag could be one such way to
accomplish this, Bevilacqua said.
Bevilacqua joined the Rensselaer School of Engineering
faculty in 2010, before which he served as a lecturer and
researcher at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
He earned his laurea degree in aerospace engineering, and his
doctoral degree in mathematical methods and models for applied
sciences, both from the Sapienza University of Rome.
He is also a faculty member of the Center for Automation
Technologies and Systems (CATS) at Rensselaer.
For additional information on Bevilacqua’s research at
Contact: Michael Mullaney
Phone: (518) 276-6161