In a groundbreaking mission, NASA is set to launch four six-unit (6U)-sized CubeSats (very small satellites) this month into orbit around Earth to test the feasibility of “autonomous cooperation” among small robotic satellites without real-time updates from mission control. The mission, named ‘Starling,’ aims to explore key technologies essential for future deep space missions, where complex and autonomous spacecraft will play a critical role for safe operations.
After NASA completes the first test rounds, it will collaborate with SpaceX to test autonomous collision avoidance technology with ‘Starling’ and Starlink satellites in orbit. SpaceX operates a broadband constellation of approximately 4,485 satellites in Low Earth Orbit (as of today) and has permission from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to deploy 7,500 more. SpaceX’s Starlink satellites have demonstrated to be useful to provide internet to underserved regions globally and all the satellites are capable of avoiding orbital collisions autonomously. “Space is populated with existing debris, tracked by the [United States Military] 18th Space Control Squadron. Starlink utilizes an automated collision avoidance system, ingesting data from the 18th,” representatives of SpaceX said in an FCC document. “Satellites can autonomously evaluate risk and plan avoidance maneuvers, without human input. Humans are still present in an oversight role, as an added measure of safety,” they shared.
Before NASA and SpaceX collaborate, NASA will deploy the Starling CubeSats (also known as Swarms) to orbit at an altitude of 355 miles (571 kilometers) above Earth and spaced about 40 miles (64 kilometers) apart. The four Starling satellites will operate in two different formations to evaluate various technologies that could enable swarms of satellites to collaborate on scientific missions in deep space. The Starling mission is projected to last at least six months.
The Starling mission will focus on testing four main capabilities. Firstly, the satellites will be tasked with autonomously maneuvering to maintain a cohesive group that will be achieved through a software named ROMEO (Reconfiguration and Orbit Maintenance Experiments Onboard). It will allow the satellites to fly in a cluster, autonomously planning and executing maneuvers without human intervention.
Secondly, they will create an adaptable communications network among themselves, utilizing a Mobile Ad-hoc Network (MANET) system. This will allow the spacecraft to establish and maintain communications without relying on Earth-based networks.
The third capability involves the use of "star tracker" sensors onboard each CubeSat. Traditionally used for orientation in space, these sensors will be repurposed as part of the StarFOX (Starling Formation-Flying Optical Experiment) technology. The star trackers will pick up light from other swarm spacecraft, using specialized software to track the entire swarm, thus helping keep the satellites together.
Lastly, the Distributed Spacecraft Autonomy (DSA) experiment will showcase the swarm's ability to collect and analyze science data cooperatively. If one satellite detects an interesting phenomenon, it will signal the others to observe the same event, significantly enhancing the efficiency of data collection for future NASA science missions.
"Starling, and the capabilities it brings for autonomous command and control for swarms of small spacecraft, will enhance NASA’s abilities for future science and exploration missions. The mission represents a significant step forward,” said Roger Hunter, program manager for NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “Starling 1.5 will be foundational for helping understand rules of the road for space traffic management," they stated in a press release this week.
The successful implementation of swarm technologies promises several advantages. It enables the collection of scientific measurements from multiple points in space, enhances network resilience by allowing satellites to patch themselves if needed, and facilitates spacecraft systems that can autonomously respond to environmental changes without real-time communication with Earth. The redundancy within a swarm also makes the team more resilient against individual failures.
Once the primary mission concludes, the Starling satellites will perform tests in orbit with SpaceX's Starlink satellite constellation to explore advanced space traffic management techniques between autonomous spacecraft operated by different organizations. This collaboration aims to develop an automated system that ensures the safe operation of both satellite sets while in relative proximity in Low Earth Orbit.
The successful execution of the Starling mission will open up new horizons for space exploration and scientific research, demonstrating NASA's commitment to advancing humanity's understanding of the cosmos through innovative and cooperative robotic missions.
VIDEO: NASA Starling Swarm Technology In Space Animation
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Featured Image Source: NASA
About the Author
Evelyn Janeidy Arevalo
Evelyn J. Arevalo joined Tesmanian in 2019 to cover news as a Space Journalist and SpaceX Starbase Texas Correspondent. Evelyn is specialized in rocketry and space exploration. The main topics she covers are SpaceX and NASA.