Purdue University Graduate School
Witsberger Dissertation - 2022-04-26.pdf (17.25 MB)
Download file


Download (17.25 MB)
posted on 2022-04-26, 14:23 authored by Paul A WitsbergerPaul A Witsberger

The missed-thrust problem is a modern challenge in the field of mission design. While some methods exist to quantify its effects, there still exists room for improvement for algorithms which can fully anticipate and plan for a realistic set of missed-thrust events. The present work investigates the use of machine learning techniques to provide a robust controller for a low-thrust spacecraft. The spacecraft’s thrust vector is provided by a neural network controller which guides the spacecraft to the target along a trajectory that is robust to missed thrust, and the controller does not need to re-optimize any trajectories if it veers off its nominal course. The algorithms used to train the controller to account for missed thrust are supervised learning and neuroevolution. Supervised learning entails showing a neural network many examples of what inputs and outputs should look like, with the network learning over time to duplicate the patterns it has seen. Neuroevolution involves testing many neural networks on a problem, and using the principles of biological evolution and survival of the fittest to produce increasingly competitive networks. Preliminary results show that a controller designed with these methods provides mixed results, but performance can be greatly boosted if the controller’s output is used as an initial guess for an optimizer. With an optimizer, the success rate ranges from around 60% to 96% depending on the problem.

Additionally, this work conducts an analysis of a novel hyperbolic rendezvous strategy which was originally conceived by Dr. Buzz Aldrin. Instead of rendezvousing on the outbound leg of a hyperbolic orbit (traveling away from Earth), the spacecraft performs a rendezvous while on the inbound leg (traveling towards Earth). This allows for a relatively low Delta-v abort option for the spacecraft to return to Earth if a problem arose during rendezvous. Previous work that studied hyperbolic rendezvous has always assumed rendezvous on the outbound leg because the total Delta-v required (total propellant required) for the insertion alone is minimal with this strategy. However, I show that when an abort maneuver is taken into consideration, inserting on the inbound leg is both lower Delta-v overall, and also provides an abort window which is up to a full day longer.


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Aeronautics and Astronautics

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

James M. Longuski

Additional Committee Member 2

William A. Crossley

Additional Committee Member 3

Kathleen C. Howell

Additional Committee Member 4

Yung C. Shin