Eric Smith

PhD Student

Department of Aerospace Engineering
2101 Glenn L. Martin Wind Tunnel
University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland 20742
Graduate Research Assistant
Space Power and Propulsion Laboratory
Phone: (301) 405-8562 | E-mail: ericss (at)


Research Interests

Laser ablation, space propulsion

Dissertation Topic

Plume characterization of the laser ablation of common spacecraft materials


Reducing the future threat of orbital debris will require active removal of the larger objects, such as old satellites and launch vehicle upper stages. Ablation by intense laser radiation, which can be applied to most materials, provides a unique means of solving this problem. Such ablation will allow a tug to use the inert mass of the debris itself as propellant for the deorbit process, greatly reducing the mass launched to orbit. It will further allow the tug to zero the rotation of the debris from a distance of several meters, reducing the risk associated with docking. Ablation plumes can produce a wide array of particle sizes, velocities, and charge states depending on the laser parameters and target material. Faster and more powerful lasers ablate mass more efficiently, but put more energy into ionization and produce nanoparticles that can reduce thrust efficiency. This research will measure the particle distribution produced from common spacecraft materials ablated with a laser near the threshold for formation of nanoparticles. The plume details will provide both a measure of the natural performance and the necessary information to analytically assess design improvements like plume acceleration or re-direction or electrostatic nanoparticle suppression.