Published: June 3, 2024 By

Hanspeter Schaub standing in front of a vacuum chamber.
Hanspeter Schaub standing in front of a vacuum chamber in his lab that will be used in the the research with In Orbit Aerospace.

Docking with a satellite orbiting Earth is delicate business, with one wrong move spelling disaster. A team of industry and University of Colorado Boulder researchers is trying to make it easier.

The work is part of two major business-university grant partnerships that include the lab of Hanspeter Schaub, a professor and chair of the Ann and H.J. Smead Department of Aerospace Engineering Sciences.

“The goal with these grants is very much tech transfer,” Schaub said. “We’re combining university research with business goals and initiatives to develop a product or service.”

The first project is a U.S. Space Force Small Business Technology Transfer grant with In Orbit Aerospace Inc. The goal is to use electro adhesive forces to ease docking between satellites, future space cargo vehicles, or orbital debris. Electro adhesion uses short-range strong electric fields to hold together adjacent bodies, even if they are not made of magnetic materials.

“Docking in space is surprisingly difficult. If servicer bumps target vehicle in an unexpected manner, it’s going to bounce off and fly away. Electro adhesion has been used a lot already with manufacturing on Earth. With electric fields, you can create attractive forces to grab stuff. They’re not huge forces, but they’re nice,” Schaub said.

The team completed early work on the project last year and has now advanced to a second stage, which began in May.

Schaub’s portion of the grant is worth about $500,000 over 18 months, and includes numerical modeling and atmospheric experiments as well as the creation of samples to test in the lab’s vacuum chamber that approximates orbital conditions.

It is not the only business development grant in Schaub’s lab. He and Associate Professor Nisar Ahmed are also in the process of setting up a contract with Trusted Space, Inc. on a U.S. Air Force STTR grant to advance autonomous satellite fault identification. CU Boulder’s portion of this project is worth roughly $300,000 over 18 months.

Like all electronics and machines, satellites sometimes fail. The goal of the effort with Trusted Space is to develop an AI that can automatically identify likely sources of errors.

“If a satellite isn’t tracking in orbit, maybe something bumped into it, maybe the rate gyroscope is off, maybe everything is fine but a sensor is giving bad information. There might be 10 different reasons why and we’re trying to down select in an automated way so a human doesn’t have to scour through datasets manually,” Schaub said.

The team has completed proof of concept work on a Phase 1 grant and is now advancing to Phase 2, modeling dozens of potential errors.

Both grants make extensive use of Basilisk, a piece of software developed by Schaub’s lab to conduct spacecraft mission simulations.

Although many of Schaub’s grants are directly with government agencies or multi-university initiatives, he said conducting work with a business partner offers unique opportunities for advancing science and additional potential for students.

“Students get exposure to industry and are excited because suddenly people outside the research community are interested in what they’re doing,” Schaub said. “They attend meetings and see how projects are run, what challenges industry is trying to solve. It helps influence their dissertations and gives more focus. I see a lot of benefits and companies also often want to hire the students.”