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Development of Systems Modelling Methods for Aerodynamic Control in Very Low Earth Orbits

   Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering

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  Dr Nicholas Crisp, Dr P Roberts  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

Operation of spacecraft in very low Earth orbits (VLEO), those below 450 km in altitude, is generally avoided due to the significantly increased atmospheric density and therefore aerodynamic drag that either requires propulsive compensation or can critically limit the operational lifetime of the satellite. However, despite the clear challenges of this orbital range, the increased atmospheric density also presents the opportunity to utilize aerodynamic forces and torques to perform attitude and orbit control manoeuvres.

Work led by the University of Manchester under the DISCOVERER project ( has sought to address the primary challenges of operating spacecraft sustainably in VLEO through foundational technology development. Within this project, novel methods for aerodynamic attitude control have been developed [1], of which some manoeuvres will be demonstrated on the Satellite for Orbital Aerodynamics Research (SOAR) [2,3], a CubeSat that was launched in June 2021.

During this PhD you will build on these foundational works and develop new systems modelling methods to support the implementation of aerodynamic control on future VLEO spacecraft platforms. For example, exploring the synergies between attitude control actuators and aerodynamic control surfaces, including the uncertainties of the atmospheric/environmental conditions and effect of different gas-surface interaction (GSI) models, and investigating different spacecraft geometric concepts and configurations. These different aspects will be incorporated into a flexible software test-bed to support the ongoing development and investigation of different methods and implementations of aerodynamic control (different control algorithms, sensor and actuator combinations, geometric concepts etc).

During this project, there will also be the opportunity to assist in the execution and analysis of the on-orbit attitude and orbit control manoeuvre demonstrations on SOAR.

This project is well suited to candidates who are interested in aerospace systems modelling, spacecraft control engineering and atmospheric physics. As part of the Space Systems Research Group at the University of Manchester, you will work alongside experts in astrodynamics, space systems modelling, and novel space propulsion systems. We will support you to develop expertise in orbital aerodynamics and systems modelling, and acquire skills in mathematics, programming, research methods, article writing, and presentation skills. You will take ownership of the outlined project, proposing your own approach and solutions, and will be encouraged to share your findings with an international community of scientists and engineers at conferences and through journal publications.

The online application form does not list individual project titles; when submitting an application, please select 'PhD Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering (42 months)' as the academic programme and then 'PhD Aerospace Engineering' as the academic plan. Take note of the application checklist and provide the requested documents. 

Equality, diversity and inclusion is fundamental to the success of The University of Manchester, and is at the heart of all of our activities. We know that diversity strengthens our research community, leading to enhanced research creativity, productivity and quality, and societal and economic impact. We actively encourage applicants from diverse career paths and backgrounds and from all sections of the community, regardless of age, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation and transgender status.

 We also support applications from those returning from a career break or other roles. We consider offering flexible study arrangements (including part-time: 50%, 60% or 80%, depending on the project/funder).

 All appointments are made on merit.

Funding Notes

The Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering are pleased to offer a 3.5 year studentship in support of this PhD. This covers Home fees and will provide a tax-free stipend of £15,609 to cover living costs. Students who hold either settled or pre-settled status through the EU Settlement Scheme and meet the residency requirement for Home fees are welcome to apply. It may be possible to consider International applicants who already hold separate funding that would be used to cover the balance of the International fee rate.


[1] S. Livadiotti, Application of orbital aerodynamics to satellite attitude control, PhD Thesis, The University of Manchester, 2021.
[2] S. Livadiotti et al., Concepts and Applications of Aerodynamic Attitude and Orbital Control for Spacecraft in Very Low Earth Orbit, in: 70th Int. Astronaut. Congr., International Astronautical Federation (IAF), Washington, DC, 2019.
[3] N.H. Crisp et al., Demonstration of Aerodynamic Control Manoeuvres in Very Low Earth Orbit using SOAR (Satellite for Orbital Aerodynamics Research), in: 70th Int. Astronaut. Congr., International Astronautical Federation (IAF), Washington, DC, 2019.

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