Date of Award


Access Type

Thesis - Open Access

Degree Name

Master of Science in Engineering Physics


Physical Sciences

Committee Chair

Dr. Aroh Barjatra

First Committee Member

Dr. Ted von Hippel

Second Committee Member

Dr. Jason Aufdenberg


Orbital debris in low Earth orbit is of growing concern to operational satellites from the government and commercial sector. With an uptick in worldwide satellite launches and the growing adoption of the CubeSat standard, the number of small objects in orbit are increasing at a faster pace than ever. As a result, a cascading collision event seems inevitable in the near future.

The United States Strategic Command tracks and determines the orbit of resident space objects using a worldwide network of radar and optical sensors. However, in order to better protect space assets, there has been increased interest in not just knowing where a space object is, but what the object is. The optical and spectral characteristics of solar light reflected off of satellites or debris can provide information on the physical state or identity of the object. These same optical signatures can be used for mission support of operational satellite missions- down to satellites as small as CubeSats. Optical observation of CubeSats could provide independent monitoring of spin rate, deployable status, identification of individual CubeSats in a swarm, or possibly attitude information.

This thesis first introduces the reader to a review of available observation techniques followed by the basics of observational astronomy relevant to satellite tracking. The thesis then presents the OSCOM system- a system for Optical tracking and Spectral characterization of CubeSats for Operational Missions. OSCOM is a ground-based system capable of observing and characterizing small debris and CubeSats with commercially available optical telescopes and detectors. The system is just as applicable for larger satellites which have higher signal to noise ratio. The OSCOM system has been used to successfully collect time-series photometry of more than 60 unique satellites of all sizes. Selected photometry results are presented along with a discussion of the technical details required for optical observation of small satellites.