Purdue University Graduate School
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An Autonomous Small Satellite Navigation System for Earth, Cislunar Space, and Beyond

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posted on 2023-09-07, 13:45 authored by Omar Fathi AwadOmar Fathi Awad

The Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) is heavily relied on for the navigation of Earth satellites. For satellites in cislunar space and beyond, GNSS is not readily available. As a result, other sources such as NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) must be relied on for navigation. However, DSN is overburdened and can only support a small number of satellites at a time. Furthermore, communication with external sources can become interrupted or deprived in these environments. Given NASA's current efforts towards cislunar space operations and the expected increase in cislunar satellite traffic, there will be a need for more autonomous navigation options in cislunar space and beyond.

In this thesis, a navigation system capable of accurate and computationally efficient orbit determination in these communication-deprived environments is proposed and investigated. The emphasis on computational efficiency is in support of cubesats which are constrained in size, cost, and mass; this makes navigation even more challenging when resources such as GNSS signals or ground station tracking become unavailable.

The proposed navigation system, which is called GRAVNAV in this thesis, involves a two-satellite formation orbiting a planet. The primary satellite hosts an Extended Kalman Filter (EKF) and is capable of measuring the relative position of the secondary satellite; accurate attitude estimates are also available to the primary satellite. The relative position measurements allow the EKF to estimate the absolute position and velocity of both satellites. In this thesis, the proposed navigation system is investigated in the two-body and three-body problems.

The two-body analysis illuminates the effect of the gravity model error on orbit determination performance. High-fidelity gravity models can be computationally expensive for cubesats; however, celestial bodies such as the Earth and Moon have non-uniform and highly-irregular gravity fields that require complex models to describe the motion of satellites orbiting in their gravity field. Initial results show that when a second-order zonal harmonic gravity model is used, the orbit determination accuracy is poor at low altitudes due to large gravity model errors while high-altitude orbits yield good accuracy due to small gravity model errors. To remedy the poor performance for low-altitude orbits, a Gravity Model Error Compensation (GMEC) technique is proposed and investigated. Along with a special tuning model developed specifically for GRAVNAV, this technique is demonstrated to work well for various geocentric and lunar orbits.

In addition to the gravity model error, other variables affecting the state estimation accuracy are also explored in the two-body analysis. These variables include the six Keplerian orbital elements, measurement accuracy, intersatellite range, and satellite formation shape. The GRAVNAV analysis shows that a smaller intersatellite range results in increased state estimation error. Despite the intersatellite range bounds, semimajor axis, measurement model, and measurement errors being identical for both orbits, the satellite formation shape also has a strong influence on orbit determination accuracy. Formations that place both satellites in different orbits significantly outperform those that place both satellites in the same orbit.

The three-body analysis primarily focuses on characterizing the unique behavior of GRAVNAV in Near Rectilinear Halo Orbits (NRHOs). Like the two-body analysis, the effect of the satellite formation shape is also characterized and shown to have a similar impact on the orbit determination performance. Unlike the two-body problem, however, different orbits possess different stability properties which are shown to significantly affect orbit determination performance. The more stable NRHOs yield better GRAVNAV performance and are also less sensitive to factors that negatively impact performance such as measurement error, process noise, and decreased intersatellite range.

Overall, the analyses in this thesis show that GRAVNAV yields accurate and computationally efficient orbit determination when GMEC is used. This, along with the independence of GRAVNAV from GNSS signals and ground-station tracking, shows that GRAVNAV has good potential for navigation in cislunar space and beyond.


Draper Scholars Program


Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Aeronautics and Astronautics

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Kenshiro Oguri

Additional Committee Member 2

Martin Corless

Additional Committee Member 3

James Garrison

Additional Committee Member 4

Daniel DeLaurentis