Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation




Electrical Engineering

First Advisor

James E. Lumpp, Jr.


As electronics become smaller and more capable, it has become possible to conduct meaningful and sophisticated satellite missions in a small form factor. However, the capability of small satellites and the range of possible applications are limited by the capabilities of several technologies, including attitude determination and control systems. This dissertation evaluates the use of image-based visual attitude propagation as a compliment or alternative to other attitude determination technologies that are suitable for miniature satellites. The concept lies in using miniature cameras to track image features across frames and extracting the underlying rotation.

The problem of visual attitude propagation as a small satellite attitude determination system is addressed from several aspects: related work, algorithm design, hardware and performance evaluation, possible applications, and on-orbit experimentation. These areas of consideration reflect the organization of this dissertation.

A “stellar gyroscope” is developed, which is a visual star-based attitude propagator that uses relative motion of stars in an imager’s field of view to infer the attitude changes. The device generates spacecraft relative attitude estimates in three degrees of freedom. Algorithms to perform the star detection, correspondence, and attitude propagation are presented. The Random Sample Consensus (RANSAC) approach is applied to the correspondence problem to successfully pair stars across frames while mitigating false-positive and false-negative star detections. This approach provides tolerance to the noise levels expected in using miniature optics and no baffling, and the noise caused by radiation dose on orbit. The hardware design and algorithms are validated using test images of the night sky. The application of the stellar gyroscope as part of a CubeSat attitude determination and control system is described. The stellar gyroscope is used to augment a MEMS gyroscope attitude propagation algorithm to minimize drift in the absence of an absolute attitude sensor.

The stellar gyroscope is a technology demonstration experiment on KySat-2, a 1-Unit CubeSat being developed in Kentucky that is in line to launch with the NASA ELaNa CubeSat Launch Initiative. It has also been adopted by industry as a sensor for CubeSat Attitude Determination and Control Systems (ADCS).