Active Lighting and Cues to Facilitate Cooperative On-Orbit Two-Stage Docking by Small Satellites

Jekan Thangavelautham, Athip Thirupathi Raj

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Kickstarting a space economy will require technologies to facilitate the trade of goods and services in space, much like how the shipping container standardized global oceanic trade. For example, small satellites are undergoing exponential growth, yet their full capabilities are not realized. This includes small satellites being assembled into large satellites carry goods. These limitations can be traced down to the limited advancement of rendezvous, docking, and assembly of small satellites in space. The existing on-orbit docking mechanisms have an extensive heritage over a few decades and are high Technology Readiness Level (TRL) for larger satellites. In contrast, on-orbit docking mechanisms for small satellites are yet to be tested in a space environment. The instruments developed so far for docking of small satellites facilitate magnetic force (soft capture). Unfortunately, soft capture is insufficient for providing a seal for transferring material from one spacecraft to another to enable on-orbit servicing. In this paper, we explore various methods for two-stage docking of small satellites, the first phase being an initial soft capture during which the alignment maneuvers of the two docking spacecraft are performed. The second phase consists of hard capture, which involves the structural latching and sealing at the interface to create a tunnel, after which the umbilicals can be engaged to transfer material, such as fuel, from one spacecraft to the other. To further simplify the docking process, we will be experimenting with and optimizing active lighting technologies that will provide alignment cues, braking, and direction maneuvering for the small satellites to dock, starting from significant misalignment and differences in velocity between a pair of satellites. We aim to perform 3D Physics simulations and analytical calculations such as feasibility calculations and detailed trade studies between different methods of two-stage docking. Based on the 3D simulation results and the analytical estimates, prototypes shall be developed for testing in simulated conditions in the laboratory. Ground-based systems such as 6-Degrees of Freedom (DOF) robotic arms mimicking the Attitude Determination and Control (ADC) systems of the spacecraft and air tables to simulate the frictionless environment of space will be used to validate the designs. Based on the trade study results, we propose a CubeSat mission concept that will deploy and demonstrate the technology on-orbit.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalProceedings of the International Astronautical Congress, IAC
StatePublished - 2021
EventIAF Space Systems Symposium 2021 at the 72nd International Astronautical Congress, IAC 2021 - Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Duration: Oct 25 2021Oct 29 2021


  • CubeSat Docking
  • Lighting cues
  • On-orbit servicing
  • Two-stage docking

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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