A paper introduces the concept of a stellar gyroscope, currently at an early stage of development, for determining the attitude or spin axis, and spin rate of a spacecraft. Like star trackers, which are commercially available, a stellar gyroscope would capture and process images of stars to determine the orientation of a spacecraft in celestial coordinates. Star trackers utilize charge coupled devices as image detectors and are capable of tracking attitudes at spin rates of no more than a few degrees per second and update rates typically <5 Hz. In contrast, a stellar gyroscope would utilize an active pixel sensor as an image detector and would be capable of tracking attitude at a slew rate as high as 50°/s, with an update rate as high as 200 Hz. Moreover, a stellar gyroscope would be capable of measuring a slew rate up to 420°/s. Whereas a Sun sensor and a three-axis mechanical gyroscope are typically needed to complement a star tracker, a stellar gyroscope would function without them; consequently, the mass, power consumption, and mechanical complexity of an attitude-determination system could be reduced considerably.

This work was done by Bedabrata Pain, Bruce Hancock, Carl Liebe, and Jeffrey Mellstrom 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 Physical Sciences category. NPO-30481