Satellites on a science missions to Mars typically aim for a low-altitude orbit in order to carry out their operations.

The lower the orbit, the more propellant is required to enter when arriving from Earth. To save propellant, a technique called aerobraking is used. This is where a small propulsive manoeuvre is undertaken in order to enter a large orbit; the satellite then makes many passes through the upper atmosphere, using drag on the solar panels to reduce the size of the orbit a little bit at a time until it is at the right height above the planet.

The technique normally requires three to six months to complete and requires near-constant supervision by a ground team on Earth.

Aerospace engineers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have now developed a way to use articulated solar panels to steer the satellite during the procedure, reducing the number of passes needed and potentially saving propellant and time.

“If we can rotate the solar...