PhD position: solar-sail orbital dynamics in the near-Earth environment (LR20.11)

Updated: about 20 hours ago

PhD position: solar-sail orbital dynamics in the near-Earth environment

Department/faculty: Faculty Aerospace Engineering
Level: University Graduate
Working hours: 38.0 hours weekly
Contract: 4 years
Salary: 2325 - 2972 euros monthly (full-time basis)

Faculty Aerospace Engineering

The Faculty of Aerospace Engineering at Delft University of Technology is one of the world's largest faculties devoted entirely to aerospace engineering. In the Netherlands, it is the only research and education institute directly related to the aerospace engineering sector. It covers the whole spectrum of aerospace engineering subjects. In aeronautics, the Faculty covers subjects ranging from aerodynamics and flight propulsion to structures and materials, and from control and simulation to air transport and operations. In astronautics, topics include astrodynamics, space missions, and space systems engineering. The Faculty has around 2,500 BSc and MSc students, more than 200 PhD candidates and 25 full professors supported by scientific staff. Our mission: ‘We aim to be a world-class Faculty of Aerospace Engineering, renowned for modern teaching practices, high-profile research, hyper-modern laboratories and facilities, and pioneering innovations’. With these, we aim to make an optimum contribution to society at a time when everything is increasingly revolving around connections. The working atmosphere at the Faculty is friendly, open-minded and dedicated.

The Department of Space Engineering provides premier European education and research in space engineering. The mission of the Department is to educate and research to advance the frontiers of space systems and missions, spaceflight, and planetary science for the benefit of society. The Department consists of two research groups: Astrodynamics and Space Missions, and Space Systems Engineering. It runs an integrated research programme comprising miniaturisation, distributed space systems, mission analysis and orbits, space propulsion, ascent and re-entry, and planetary exploration. The Department operates a cleanroom facility for the design, integration, and verification of satellite assemblies up to entire satellites.

The Astrodynamics and Space Missions Section is dedicated to the modelling and analysis of satellite orbits, planetary missions, and their many planetary applications. The aim of the Section is to provide data, models, methods, and tools to demonstrate and exploit the unique capabilities of spaceflight. The research covers a broad range of scientific and societal issues ranging from global climate change to participating in interplanetary missions searching for extra-terrestrial habitats. It is the Section's ambition to perform appealing and innovative scientific research within this range and the Section has acquired a strong, internationally acknowledged reputation in these fields of expertise. For more information, please visit .

Job description

The objective of this PhD project is to deliver radically new insights into the fundamental orbital dynamics of solar-sail propelled spacecraft in the near-Earth environment, and couple those insights with compelling new space applications that are of high societal relevance, e.g., providing drastically new solutions for space situational awareness and enabling a sustainable exploration of space around Earth.

A spacecraft equipped with a solar sail rides on sunlight the way that sailboats ride on the wind. The fact that – as such – the spacecraft does not rely on a finite amount of onboard propellant, makes solar sailing a truly mission enabling technology, and a green, sustainable form of propulsion for future spacecraft.

The focus of the project will be on:

  • developing new dynamical models to describe the orbital dynamics of solar-sail propelled miniaturised spacecraft (e.g., CubeSats) in the near-Earth environment

  • bringing new orbital dynamics solutions in the form of exploitable families of non-Keplerian orbits and/or efficient transfer capabilities to light

  • comparing the performance of different sail configurations (e.g., fixed-shape versus heliogyro configurations)

  • and exploiting the newly devised orbital dynamics for ground-breaking space applications.

Applications may include active space debris removal, space weather observations, and/or multi-revolution Earth-escape spirals for CubeSats to expand their access into interplanetary space. The choice of application may be tailored to the PhD candidate’s personal interests.

The ultimate goal of this project is to prove the capabilities of solar-sail propulsion for new, sustainable, and low-cost near-Earth mission applications, thereby creating an excellent use case for solar sailing and consequently a step-change in the acceptance and utilisation of this new propulsion technology. During the project, the PhD candidate will be given the opportunity to work within a broad international network of institutes, universities, and space agencies, as well as to co-supervise collaborative MSc students.

The expected starting date of the PhD project is November 2020.


Applicants should have a university degree (MSc) in aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, applied mathematics, or any other scientific or technical area relevant to the proposed research and have a strong background in numerical modelling. Experience in astrodynamics, space mission analysis and design, and/or trajectory optimisation is considered a plus, but more important are a strong motivation, demonstration of high-quality work, and being well-organised, precise, and creative. Furthermore, the candidate should have excellent written and oral English communication skills.

Conditions of employment

TU Delft offers a customisable compensation package, a discount for health insurance and sport memberships, and a monthly work costs contribution. Flexible work schedules can be arranged. An International Children’s Centre offers childcare and an international primary school. Dual Career Services offers support to accompanying partners. Salary and benefits are in accordance with the Collective Labour Agreement for Dutch Universities.

As a PhD candidate you will be enrolled in the TU Delft Graduate School. TU Delft Graduate School provides an inspiring research environment; an excellent team of supervisors, academic staff, and a mentor; and a Doctoral Education Programme aimed at developing your transferable, discipline-related, and research skills. Please visit for more information.

Information and application

For information about this vacancy, you can contact Dr. Ir. M.J. (Jeannette) Heiligers, Assistant Professor, email: [email protected] , tel: +31 15 27 86221.

For information about the selection procedure, please contact Ms. N. (Relly) van Wingaarden, Management Assistant, email: [email protected] .

To apply, candidates should provide (in English):

  • a cover letter explaining the motivation for applying to this position, including a reflection on the abovementioned requirements

  • a CV

  • two letters of recommendation.

Interviews for selected candidates are expected to take place in May 2020.

Enquiries from agencies are not appreciated.

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