The University of Alabama partners with the Air Force to research space innovations

Researchers at the University of Alabama are studying how a single spacecraft could serve multiple Earth-orbiting satellites in one trip, potentially expanding the satellites’ missions.

Based on initial successes in orbit calculations, Rohan Sood, associate professor of aerospace engineering and mechanics, received support from the United States Air Force for a project that could also benefit the US Space Force in strengthening national defenses.

A spacecraft visiting multiple orbiting satellites has always been a vision of the future, requiring innovative solutions, precise calculations and a high level of engineering skill.

“What we’re trying to do has never been done before,” Sood said. “With this support, the University of Alabama is showing its ability not just to generate ideas, but to translate them into solutions for real-world applications.”

There is an urgent need to refuel, repair, remove or reposition satellites orbiting the earth. The project aims to quickly and efficiently calculate optimal rendezvous solutions for a single spacecraft to visit numerous satellites for debris removal and satellite maintenance.

Rohan Sood’s lab at the University of Alabama has expertise in innovative spacecraft trajectory design. (Contribution)

Currently, satellites are either orbiting until they crash back into Earth’s atmosphere, or moving into more distant graveyard orbits. Sood’s lab, which has expertise in innovative spacecraft trajectories that leverage natural dynamics, will use the Air Force grant to calculate the feasibility of sustainable orbits that can service satellites and their usefulness in extending their orbit continue.

“Some of the vehicles up there are fully functional, their only problem is they’re running out of fuel,” Sood said. “If we can save at least part of it from being thrown away in an economical and environmentally friendly way, then it could be feasible to continue using it.”

UA was selected in partnership with Continuum Space Systems for the Air Force’s Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program, designed to drive research into marketable innovations. State STTR programs require companies to work with a research facility to research, develop and mature concepts.

Administered from an office within the Air Force Research Laboratory SpaceWERX, UA is one of 66 research institutions across the country selected for the STTR grant under the Orbital Prime program. The 124 Phase 1 STTR grants, valued at $250,000, aim to revitalize the space services, assembly and manufacturing markets.

Phase 1 STTR award winners are invited this year to apply for an STTR Phase 2 opportunity of up to $1.5 million over 15 months.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama website.