Onboard Propellant Gauging For Spacecraft
Estimation of the total mission life of a spacecraft is an important issue for the communication satellite industries. For accurate determination of the remaining mission life of the satellite it is essential to estimate the amount of propellant present in the propellant tank of the spacecraft at various stages of its mission life. Because the annual revenue incurred from a typical commu-nication satellite operating at its full capacity is on the order of millions of dollars, premature removal of spacecraft from their orbits results in heavy losses. Various techniques such as the bookkeeping method, the gas law method, numerical modeling techniques, and use of capacitive sensors have been employed in the past for accurate determination of the amount of propellant present in a spacecraft. First half of the thesis is concerned with sensitivity analysis of the various propellant gauging techniques, that is, estimating the effects of the uncertainty in the instruments employed in the propellant gauging system on the onboard propellant estimation. This sensitivity analysis is done for three existing propellant gauging techniques – gas injection method, book-keeping method and the propellant tank heating method. A comparative study of the precision with which the onboard propellant is estimated by the three techniques is done and the primary source of uncertainty for all the three techniques is identified. It is illustrated that all the three methods — the gas injection method, the book-keeping method and the propellant tank heating method — are inherently indirect methods of propellant gauging, as a consequence of which, the precision with which the three techniques estimate the residual propellant decreases towards the end of mission life of the spacecraft. The second half of the thesis explores the possibility of using a new propellant tank configuration, consisting of a truncated cone centrally mounted within a spherical propellant tank, to measure the amount of liquid propellant present within the tank. The liquid propellant present within the propellant tank orients itself in a geometry, by virtue of its dominant surface tension force in zero-g condition, which minimizes its total surface energy. Study reveals that the amount of liquid propellant present in the tank can thus be estimated by measuring the height of the propellant meniscus within the central cone. It is also observed that, unlike gas law method, bookkeeping method or the propellant tank heating method, where the precision of the estimated propellant fill-fraction decreases towards the end-of-life of the spacecraft, for the proposed new configuration the precision increases.