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The Space Flight Projects Laboratory conducts research spanning theoretical astrodynamics, applications in mission design, flight operations, and space technology, and interdisciplinary flight projects that bridge space science and engineering. The overarching goal of this work is to conceive, enable and implement innovative missions to advance Earth and planetary science.

Dr. Spencer conducts theoretical research in spacecraft relative motion, advancing a geometric formulation for close proximity orbital dynamics using relative orbital elements. When combined with a control methodology applying artificial potential functions, relative orbital elements allow the desired orbit geometry to be attained in an automated fashion. This control methodology may be used to establish collaborative behaviors in a close proximity network.

The research group works to advance the state-of-the-art in aeroassist technologies (aerobraking, aerocapture, and entry, descent and landing), automated mission operations for robotic and human exploration, and in-space propulsion using deployable thin-membrane sails.  Researchers are investigating the application of neural networks for machine learning to enable autonomous aerobraking and aerocapture.  Automated mission planning tools are being developed for low-gravity astronaut extra-vehicular activities (EVAs) on the surface of asteroids or small planetary moons.  Drag sails are being developed as a bolt-on solution for the deorbit of small satellites to preserve the utility of high-value orbits.  Through these research topics, students become recognized experts in their fields while advancing aerospace science and technology.

SFPL is currently investigating a mission concept to determine how the Martian moons Phobos and Deimos were formed.  The mission concept, named "Chariot to the Moons of Mars," was competitively selected for funding by NASA through the Planetary Science Deep Space SmallSat Studies program.  SFPL is also contributing to advanced technology development for the rendezvous and capture of an orbiting sample canister at Mars, a critical element of Mars Sample Return.