Degree Type


Date of Award


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Aerospace Engineering


Aerospace Engineering

First Advisor

Ping Lu


Mission proposals that land spacecraft on asteroids are becoming increasingly popular. However, in order to have a successful mission the spacecraft must reliably and softly land at the intended landing site with pinpoint precision. The problem under investigation is how to design a propellant (fuel) optimal powered descent trajectory that can be quickly computed onboard the spacecraft, without interaction from ground control. The goal is to autonomously design the optimal powered descent trajectory onboard the spacecraft immediately prior to the descent burn for use during the burn. Compared to a planetary powered landing problem, the challenges that arise from designing an asteroid powered descent trajectory include complicated nonlinear gravity fields, small rotating bodies, and low thrust vehicles. The nonlinear gravity fields cannot be represented by a constant gravity model nor a Newtonian model. The trajectory design algorithm needs to be robust and efficient to guarantee a designed trajectory and complete the calculations in a reasonable time frame.

This research investigates the following questions: Can convex optimization be used to design the minimum propellant powered descent trajectory for a soft landing on an asteroid? Is this method robust and reliable to allow autonomy onboard the spacecraft without interaction from ground control? This research designed a convex optimization based method that rapidly generates the propellant optimal asteroid powered descent trajectory. The solution to the convex optimization problem is the thrust magnitude and direction, which designs and determines the trajectory. The propellant optimal problem was formulated as a second order cone program, a subset of convex optimization, through relaxation techniques by including a slack variable, change of variables, and incorporation of the successive solution method. Convex optimization solvers, especially second order cone programs, are robust, reliable, and are guaranteed to find the global minimum provided one exists. In addition, an outer optimization loop using Brent's method determines the optimal flight time corresponding to the minimum propellant usage over all flight times. Inclusion of additional trajectory constraints, solely vertical motion near the landing site and glide slope, were evaluated.

Through a theoretical proof involving the Minimum Principle from Optimal Control Theory and the Karush-Kuhn-Tucker conditions it was shown that the relaxed problem is identical to the original problem at the minimum point. Therefore, the optimal solution of the relaxed problem is an optimal solution of the original problem, referred to as lossless convexification. A key finding is that this holds for all levels of gravity model fidelity. The designed thrust magnitude profiles were the bang-bang predicted by Optimal Control Theory.

The first high fidelity gravity model employed was the 2x2 spherical harmonics model assuming a perfect triaxial ellipsoid and placement of the coordinate frame at the asteroid's center of mass and aligned with the semi-major axes. The spherical harmonics model is not valid inside the Brillouin sphere and this becomes relevant for irregularly shaped asteroids. Then, a higher fidelity model was implemented combining the 4x4 spherical harmonics gravity model with the interior spherical Bessel gravity model. All gravitational terms in the equations of motion are evaluated with the position vector from the previous iteration, creating the successive solution method. Methodology success was shown by applying the algorithm to three triaxial ellipsoidal asteroids with four different rotation speeds using the 2x2 gravity model. Finally, the algorithm was tested using the irregularly shaped asteroid, Castalia.

Copyright Owner

Robin Marie Pinson



File Format


File Size

197 pages