April 3, 2024

photo of Akhilesh MulgundAkhilesh Mulgund, a Ph.D. aerospace engineering graduate student, is the recipient of the highly competitive National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship for 2024. Mulgund performs research in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics under the guidance of professor Maruthi Akella in the CDUS (Controls Group for Distributed and Uncertain Systems) lab. 

The NDSEG Fellowship was established in 1989 to increase the number of U.S. citizens receiving doctoral degrees in science and engineering. The program is sponsored by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR), the Army Research Office (ARO), and the Office of Naval Research (ONR) under the direction of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering.

Learn more about Mulgund’s research and his future plans in this brief Q&A: 

Tell us about your research and why it matters.

The research being supported by the fellowship will involve investigating space domain awareness in cislunar space. Cislunar space refers to the region beyond geostationary orbit, encompassing the region between the Earth and the Moon as well as the regions around the five Earth-Moon Lagrange points. There are several challenges with guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) in cislunar space, caused by the highly complex dynamical environment, infrequent IOD (initial orbit determination) updates of spacecraft position, and generally poor navigational measurements due to large distances involved. All these factors mean that there will always be a need for some level of onboard learning and adaption to correct the control policy/pre-planned trajectory.

 This research seeks to significantly advance space domain awareness capabilities in the cislunar regime, by developing an efficient strategy for adaptive trajectory planning and control under uncertainty. Due to model fidelity errors and the unpredictability of the cislunar environment, modifications to pre-loaded control policies will be crucial to ensure safe trajectories. This research aims to explore adaptive control policies and learning algorithms in order to deal with the varying fidelity of the dynamics and operational uncertainties, to ensure safe trajectories through cislunar space.

What are some practical applications of this work?

The advancement of space domain awareness in the cislunar regime will enable access to certain specific orbits and points of interest that offer strategic advantages as outposts for both military and civilian applications. Developing adaptive control policies for trajectories will increase the autonomous capability of spacecraft to maneuver through the cislunar regime. Applications of this work involve surveillance, human exploration on the moon, space-based manufacturing, refueling outposts, and support of scientific endeavors in the region. 

What are your plans after graduation?

I hope to continue researching state-of-the-art problems pertaining to spacecraft control and autonomy. It is an exciting time for space exploration, with several government and commercial entities focusing on advancing capabilities in space. Upon graduation, I plan to join industry or a national laboratory, working on developing solutions for the various GNC challenges in space.