The Use Of Variable Celestial X-ray Sources For Spacecraft Navigation

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Accurate control and guidance of spacecraft require continuous high performance three-dimensional navigation solutions. Celestial sources that produce fixed radiation have demonstrated benefits for determining location near Earth and vehicle attitude. Many interplanetary navigation solutions have also relied on Earth-based radio telescope observations and substantial ground processing.

This dissertation investigates the use of variable celestial sources to compute an accurate navigation solution for autonomous spacecraft operation and presents new methodologies for determining time, attitude, position, and velocity. A catalogue of X-ray emitting variable sources has been compiled to identify those that exhibit characteristics conducive to navigation. Many of these sources emit periodic signals that are stable and predictable, and all are located at vast distances such that the signal visibility is available throughout the solar system and beyond. An important subset of these sources is pulsar stars. Pulsars are rapidly rotating neutron stars, which generate pulsed radiation throughout the electromagnetic spectrum with periods ranging from milliseconds to thousands of seconds.

A detailed analysis of several X-ray pulsars is presented to quantify expected spacecraft range accuracy based upon the source properties, observation times, and X-ray photon detector parameters. High accuracy time transformation equations are developed, which include important general relativistic corrections. Using methods that compare measured and predicted pulse time of arrival within an inertial frame, approaches are presented to determine absolute and relative position, as well as corrections to estimated solutions. A recursive extended Kalman filter design is developed to incorporate the spacecraft dynamics and pulsar-based range measurements.

Simulation results demonstrate that absolute position determination depends on the accuracy of the pulse phase measurements and initial solutions within several tens of kilometers are achievable. The delta-correction method can improve this position solution to within 100 m MRSE and velocity to within 10 mm/s RMS using observations of 500 s and a 1-m2 detector. Comparisons to recorded flight data obtained from Earth-orbiting X-ray astrophysics missions are also presented.

Results indicate that the pulsed radiation from variable celestial X-ray sources presents a significant opportunity for developing a new class of navigation system for autonomous spacecraft operation.