Feasibility of a non-invasive compensation scheme was analyzed for precise positioning of a massive extended body in free fall using gravitational forces influenced by surrounding source masses in close proximity. The N-body problem of classical mechanics is a paradigm used to gain insight into the physics of the equivalent N-body problem subject to control forces.

The analysis addressed how a number of control masses move around the proof mass so that the proof mass position can be accurately and remotely compensated when exogenous disturbances are acting on it, while its sensitivity to gravitational waves remains unaffected. Past methods to correct the dynamics of the proof mass have considered active electrostatic or capacitive methods, but the possibility of stray capacitances on the surfaces of the proof mass have prompted the investigation of other alternatives, such as the method presented in this paper.

While more rigorous analyses of the problem should be carried out, the data show that, by means of a combined feedback and feed-forward control approach, the control masses succeeded in driving the proof mass along the specified trajectory, which implies that the proof mass can, in principle, be balanced via gravitational forces only while external perturbations are acting on it. This concept involves the dynamic stability of a group of massive objects interacting gravitationally under active control, and can apply to drag-free control of spacecraft during missions, to successor gravitational wave space borne sensors, or to any application requiring flying objects to be precisely controlled in position and attitude relative to another body via gravitational interactions only.

This work was done by Marco Quadrelli of Caltech for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For more information, contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..