A paper discusses the effect of the dynamic interaction taking place within a formation composed of a rigid and a deformable vehicle, and presents the concept of two or more tethered spacecraft flying in formation with one or more separated freeflying spacecraft.

Although progress toward formation flight of nontethered spacecraft has already been achieved, the document cites potential advantages of tethering, including less consumption of fuel to maintain formation, very high dynamic stability of a rotating tethered formation, and intrinsically passive gravity-gradient stabilization. The document presents a theoretical analysis of the dynamics of a system comprising one free-flying spacecraft and two tethered spacecraft in orbit, as a prototype of more complex systems. The spacecraft are modeled as rigid bodies and the tether as a mass-less spring with structural viscous damping. Included in the analysis is a study of the feasibility of a centralized control system for maintaining a required formation in low Earth orbit. A numerical simulation of a retargeting maneuver is reported to show that even if the additional internal dynamics of the system caused by flexibility is considered, high pointing precision can be achieved if a fictitious rigid frame is used to track the tethered system, and it should be possible to position the spacecraft with centimeter accuracy and to orient the formation within arc seconds of the desired direction also in the presence of low Earth orbit environmental perturbations. The results of the study demonstrate that the concept is feasible in Earth orbit and point the way to further study of these hybrid tethered and free-flying systems for related applications in orbit around other Solar System bodies.

This work was done by Marco B. Quadrelli of Caltech for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free on-line at www.techbriefs.com/tsp under the Mechanics category.


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Formation Flying of Tethered and Nontethered Spacecraft

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This article first appeared in the March, 2005 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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