This Q&A is part of a series highlighting Florida Tech faculty, their research and their impact, which takes root on the Space Coast and extends around the globe. For it is not coincidence that brings our stellar faculty members to Florida Tech. It’s passion. Be it landing on Mars or restoring lagoon health, curing illness or protecting personal information, their passions shape our community and create powerful connections among the university, local industries and the world beyond. Faculty research isn’t just part of the job; it’s what they believe in—what they stand for. Exploration. Innovation. Progress. Research for the benefit of all humankind.
They say, “What goes up must come down.” But that hasn’t yet proven to be the case for the many obsolete satellites-turned-space-trash that, according to aerospace, physics and space sciences associate professor Markus Wilde, Ph.D., could soon make space a dangerously cluttered destination. The “launch it, fly it, leave it” approach to spaceflight just isn’t sustainable in the long run, he says.
To combat this, Dr. Wilde and his research team are focused on space robotics, developing technology to enable spacecraft to repair other spacecraft while in orbit and to remove space debris to make room for new launches and satellites. If you ask him, the Space Coast has the potential to reach further than just space launch. With the help of research like his, aimed at creating a sustainable and properly functioning space economy, a lot further.
Put as simply as possible, what is your research about?
My actual research focuses on space robotics, specifically, on enabling spacecraft to repair other spacecraft in orbit, or if that’s not possible, to remove them so that they are not a hazard. How do you use a robot arm to transfer fuel? To capture something in space? To manipulate it around?
But we’re also looking at the spacecraft. What kind of sensors do we need on the spacecraft? What kind of control laws do we need on the spacecraft? How can we augment that from the ground? Basically, how can somebody on the ground remotely control these things in order to do complicated operations where an autonomous controller is just not capable enough?
Also, we do some systems development, where we design small satellites that you could launch as a piggyback on a big one. Then, if anything goes wrong, it would detach itself and inspect the big satellite for damage. If there is damage, it would document and potentially repair it, or maybe just call for help to send a larger, more capable repair satellite up.
What are some applications of your research? How could it impact the local community?
I know the Space Coast is mostly about launching rockets and getting stuff into space, but there’s always this big talk about sustainability and how to create a sustainable and properly functioning space economy. The way we’re doing spaceflight right now is, we launch it, fly it, and if it doesn’t work anymore, we just toss it. And that is not really a way of doing anything sustainably.
What this research can contribute is the actual capability to repair satellites, make them more capable after they’re already flown and extend their lives.
Also, it may sound stupid, but space is getting kind of full. We’re running into the risk of all of these old satellites and space debris, or space trash, actually getting in the way of new launches, new satellites. At some point, it’s going to be a problem for human spaceflight, too. But the technologies we develop could actually help clean up space so that we can fly again and launch more stuff safely.
Is this all done at Florida Tech? Where do you conduct your research?
At Florida Tech we have the ORION Lab [Orbital Robotic Interaction, On-orbit servicing and Navigation laboratory], which is custom-designed for this kind of stuff. And we don’t have to go anywhere because it is one of the more capable spacecraft, formation flight and space robotics labs out there. We can do everything in-house.
That’s awesome. So, what does the ORION Lab have that other universities don’t?
We have a really nice combination of different simulators for spacecraft motion. We have what we call an “air-bearing table” or a “flat floor,” which is just a glass plate on an optical bench with a small satellite model skidding around them on air bearings, so they don’t have any friction. That’s something that you find quite a bit in other schools or research labs, too. But we also have a simulator for orbital dynamics. So, our spacecraft models are installed on that simulator, and it’s actually able to produce the dynamics that you will find in orbit when the two things move close to each other. That’s something that not many institutions have.
We can also produce lighting conditions like those on orbit. So, we’re actually able to produce sunlight that’s bright enough to blind cameras, to overpower sensors, and that’s also something that most other labs do not have. So, we can simulate more realistic conditions than some of the other labs. If it works in our lab, it will also work in space because we are able to reproduce the critical conditions well enough.
We also have these experimental research facilities that can be used by researchers, but also by industry. So, it’s not just the little sandbox for our students to play in—it’s actually something that we can also provide to the community.
Interesting. And it’s a symbiotic relationship, right? How does taking place in the Melbourne community benefit your work?
Although it’s not exactly the same topic that the local industry is working on, I would say our proximity to the space industry here brings some unique combinations of talent—and potential customers—to this town. I mean, L3Harris is building more and more small satellites, so it would make sense for them to start investing in this kind of technology.
Northrop Grumman, although not the guys in Melbourne, is actually the only commercial provider of on-orbit services at this point. They don’t do in-orbit repair or in-orbit upgrades yet, but they are the only ones on this planet that you can actually buy on-orbit servicing from right now.
Plus, there is a lot of future technology drive at the Cape that I think is, a lot of times, underappreciated. Most people think of spaceflight as just flashy rocket launches. But actually, the most interesting stuff happens after the launch.
I think that it’s a unique environment here, and there is so much more potential to what the Space Coast can be beyond just a launch provider, beyond just a port facility. And I think Florida Tech and the local industry can really drive that. That’s why I think this research, which can have a major impact on the commercial future of space, is in a good spot.
Who else is involved? Students, other faculty members, other universities?
I work, to some degree, with Dr. Kirk and Dr. Gutierrez. We cross paths, and we kind of work in a parallel effort. I work a lot with other universities, too. For example, Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, is doing similar research to what we are doing, and I know the professor from doing my postdoc there. We also coordinate with some government labs, like the Air Force Research Lab and the Naval Research Labs, to share experiences, ideas, best practices and information like that.
But really, it’s mostly driven by my students. I actually have more undergraduate students working in my lab than graduate students at this point. I’m very lucky—I’m really drawing the highest talents in aerospace engineering into that lab because they want to work on these things. They want to develop their own systems. They want to see how that works. Here, they learn about a lot of topics outside of aerospace engineering—they learn stuff about robotics; they learn stuff about proper programming; they learn how to solder things without burning their fingers off. It’s a really good environment because they learn so much more than just their classical syllabus topics.