Autonomous navigation of satellites for proximity and docking operations

I am currently in my third and final year of a PhD program in Aerospace Science and Technology at the University of Bologna, Italy, under the supervision of Professors Paolo Tortora and Dario Modenini. I began my PhD studies in November 2021, immediately following the conclusion of a post-graduate research scholarship. The anticipated completion date for my PhD is in October 2024.

My doctoral studies are fully supported by a research scholarship on "Autonomous navigation of satellites for proximity and docking operations" at the Microsatellite and Space Microsystems Laboratory at Forlì Campus.

During my PhD journey, I have taken on roles as a teaching tutor and MATLAB Ambassador. Additionally, I have actively participated in various laboratory activities, including student supervision, involvement in #T-TeC 2021, and the contribution to the development of the NanoDynA ADCS facility for ESA-ESTEC.

In the third year of my program, spanning from the end of February to mid-July, I will be engaged in a research visit at the Sentients Satellites Lab of the University of Adelaide (Australia).

PhD overview

The objective of my PhD is to contribute to the advancement of autonomous vision-based navigation techniques. This involves leveraging lightweight and cost-effective sensors, particularly monocular cameras, within the context of close-proximity and docking grasping operations. Additionally, it involves the application of Deep Learning for image processing.

Research framework

In recent years, In-Orbit Servicing (IOS) and Active Debris Removal (ADR) missions have gained significant attention in the space community. These missions aim to inspect, recover, refuel, relocate, upgrade, and deorbit unresponsive satellites or assets approaching the end of their operational life. This marks a transformative shift in satellite design philosophy while ensuring safe and continuous access to space. These missions involve at least two probes maneuvering in close proximity, potentially leading to docking.

Close Proximity Operations (CPOs) in such scenarios pose a high risk due to the possibility of impacts, particularly when dealing with noncooperative targets. Despite ongoing discussions within international working groups, there is currently no agreed-upon international standard for safe CPOs. However, design guidelines and best practices are being assessed. These guidelines emphasize that the chaser must be able to measure and control its state relative to the client, ensuring adherence to a defined approach corridor during the rendezvous.

Summary of the activities

In the initial phase of my PhD, I focused on refining a pose estimation software developed in a prior research scholarship. This refinement process extended to testing the software on a Coral Dev Board Mini. Subsequently, I delved into the 2nd ESA Pose Estimation Challenge, where my attention shifted towards addressing domain gap issues. Concurrently, I explored enhancing the robustness of my pose estimation pipeline by incorporating refinement steps into both the detection and pose regression processes. Concerning the domain gap, I actively worked on minimizing disparities between real and synthetic images using generative adversarial models, a strategy that proved effective for bridging the gap.

Moving into the third year, a research period abroad is on the horizon at the Institute for Machine Learning, University of Adelaide, Australia. Under the guidance of Professor Tat-Jun Chin, the head of the Sentient Satellites Laboratory, my research activities will involve:

  • Augmenting pose estimation with pose tracking, employing navigation filters in proximity operations scenarios.
  • Real-time experimental validation of pose estimation and tracking algorithms through the processing of images from a robotic mock-up, running the software with processor-in-the-loop.

📰 For information regarding publications, please refer to the dedicated section.

This page will be updated in the next months.