Aerospace engineering professor recognized for influence in astrodynamics

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Robert Melton, professor of aerospace engineering at Penn State, has been selected to receive the American Astronautical Society’s 2019 Dirk Brouwer Award for his substantial contributions to space flight mechanics and astrodynamics.

The Dirk Brouwer Award recognizes an individual who has made strides in the astronautical field. The award is named in honor of Dirk Brouwer, an astronomer whose leadership in celestial mechanics contributed to humanity’s exploration of space. 


Robert Melton, professor of aerospace engineering and director of the aerospace engineering undergraduate studies program Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

“I’m truly honored to be receiving this award, but also humbled when I consider the list of previous recipients and their work,” Melton said. “I know, or knew, many of them, and it’s been a great pleasure to associate with them and others at technical conferences and through editorial work in this discipline.”  

Melton joined Penn State in 1981 as an assistant professor of aerospace engineering. In 1996, he took a yearlong sabbatical to conduct research at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. While there, he contributed to the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) — a mission led by the European Space Agency that looked to detect and measure gravitational waves from astronomical sources. 

He specifically studied the approximation of satellite motion on elliptical orbits, a research topic that no one else was exploring in relation to LISA at the time. Through his research, he developed the first 3D, time-explicit representation of relative motion between spacecraft on elliptical orbits. His research has been frequently cited in literature and used in a variety of missions — including space-based laser interferometry for gravitational wave detection and other satellite formations that can take advantage of elliptical paths. 

Melton’s research also includes work on analytical and computational methods for space trajectory and satellite attitude optimal control, contributing to the understanding of space flight mechanics and astrodynamics. 

“I am very pleased that Dr. Melton earned this honor,” said David Spencer, professor of aerospace engineering and colleague of Melton. “He has a long track record of contributing to the body of knowledge in our field, and our technical community has recognized the importance of his work with this award.”

Melton was nominated for the Dirk Brouwer Award by both Spencer and Puneet Singla, associate professor of aerospace engineering.

“In over 35 years as a professional researcher, Dr. Melton has influenced the discipline with significant contributions,” Singla said. “Dr. Melton has also mentored an impressive number of graduate students to achieve their M.S. or Ph.D. degrees. Many of those students are now successful members of the astrodynamics community.”

Melton is also the director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and serves as adviser to the Penn State Chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

“Penn State has been a wonderful place to work for the past 38 years,” Melton said. “I particularly value my colleagues in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, as well as many others in mathematics, astronomy and astrophysics and engineering science and mechanics, with whom I’ve had many useful conversations about related work.”


Last Updated January 15, 2020