Thanks to Starling, NASA will test complex swarm operations
NASA is preparing to launch Starling, its first swarm of satellites. Instead of communicating directly with the four Starling cubesats, mission operators will send instructions to the swarm as a single entity.
If successful, “swarms have the potential to revolutionize the way we do science,” said Howard Cannon, NASA Starling Project Manager at NASA Ames Research Center. “Instead of having one monolithic spacecraft that you depend on to function properly, you can have multiple smaller spacecrafts that are less expensive.”
Swarms also offer NASA the ability to collect scientific data from multiple locations with much less hands-on than traditional constellations.
HelioSwarm, for example, is a $250 million mission NASA plans to launch in 2028 to study solar wind turbulence with nine satellites. HelioSwarm mission managers will communicate with the central satellite built by Northrop Grumman, which will coordinate the operations of eight small spacecraft built by Blue Canyon Technologies.
“HelioSwarm’s nine spacecraft form an observatory to provide the first-ever simultaneous, multi-scale observations of the solar wind needed to understand space plasma turbulence,” said Harlan Spence, HelioSwarm Principal Investigator and Director of the Institute for the Study of Earth and Oceans at the University of New Hampshire. and Space, said via email. “Turbulence is inherently a multi-scale process and these different scale sizes must be sampled simultaneously to understand how energy is transmitted.”
Despite the promise, swarms in general and the Starling mission in particular present challenges. It remains to be seen whether communication, navigation and autonomy technologies are advanced enough for swarm operations. NASA intends to find out during the six-month Starling mission with a series of experiments.
First, the Mobile Ad-hoc Network experience. Starling mission officials will test whether six-unit cubesats can establish and maintain a dynamic communications network.
“If one of the satellites is out of range or fails, how do you ensure that the network is still achieving a certain level of reliability and throughput,” asked Shey Sabripour, founder and CEO of CesiumAstro, which provides defined radios by Starling software S-band intersatellite links. “That’s what we’re trying to solve here with NASA.”
Next up is the Starlink Optical Formation Flight Experiment, known as StarFOX. Starling satellites will rely on star trackers to move through various formations and avoid collisions.
“For the first time, we will give a swarm the ability to navigate autonomously in space without GPS, using only cameras embedded in these four cubesats pointing at each other,” said Simone D’ Amico, who runs the Space Rendezvous Laboratory at Stanford University. “By exchanging and processing the measurements of these cameras, we are able to determine the orbits of all spacecraft.”
The third demo, Reconfiguration and Orbit Maintenance Experiments Onboard (ROMEO), will test whether Starling satellites can maneuver autonomously to achieve their goals.
“Coordinated autonomous maneuvers will be required for future constellations and swarms where communication delays and bandwidth limitations make ground control impractical,” said Austin Probe, chief technology officer for Emergent Space Technologies. “ROMEO integrates our Autopilot and Navigator flight software products to demonstrate autonomous station-keeping and Starling swarm reconfiguration.”
While the Starling satellites will perform autonomous operations in orbit, L3Harris Technologies will run a variation of its flight dynamics planning software on the ground.
“The ground planning software is a benchmark for seeing how well autonomous satellites perform in this type of test scenario,” said Praveen Kurian, L3Harris general manager for space superiority.
Starling’s latest experiment, Distributed Spacecraft Autonomy, relies on artificial intelligence to come up with plans based on ionospheric observations. Along with GPS receivers, Starling satellites will monitor ionospheric density and move around to further explore regions of particularly high or low density. Starling satellites “will automatically adjust their measurement techniques to take advantage of their relative positions,” Cannon said.
LAUNCH OF FLUO
The Starling mission is set to launch later this year from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, on a Firefly Aerospace Alpha rocket. The launch, alongside seven other cubesat missions, is a demonstration of NASA’s Venture-class launch services.
However, Firefly first plans to complete Flight 2, the company’s second orbital test launch. Firefly attempted in September to send its first Alpha into orbit, but was unsuccessful due to the failure of one of Alpha’s four engines.
Another orbital test flight is scheduled for July. After that, the company will “go as fast as we can” toward the NASA launch, said Kim Jennett, Firefly’s chief marketing officer.
For Firefly, Starling is “very important in developing a long-term partnership with NASA,” said Firefly CEO Tom Markusic. “We are very honored to be part of this program.”
When the satellites are in orbit, Blue Canyon Technologies, the subsidiary of Raytheon Technologies that also manufactured the Starling satellites, will provide support for mission operations.
“The mission gives BCT the opportunity to demonstrate the flexibility of our mission operating system, from ground planning to mission plan retrieval and download to timely delivery of mission data, while operating a constellation of spacecraft,” said Stephanee Borck, BCT Starling program manager.
This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.