NASA is embarking on a mission called Starling, where they will be sending a team of four CubeSats into orbit around Earth to test their ability to cooperate autonomously without real-time updates from mission control. This mission is crucial for the future of deep space missions, where more complex and autonomous spacecraft will be necessary.
The four CubeSats will be launched into two different formations and will test several technologies that will pave the way for swarms of satellites to work together in deep space. The mission will last at least six months, with the spacecraft positioned about 355 miles above Earth and spaced about 40 miles apart.
The main capabilities that Starling will be testing include autonomously maneuvering to stay together as a group, creating an adaptable communications network amongst the spacecraft, keeping track of each other’s relative position, and responding to new information from onboard sensors by executing new activities on their own. The goal is to create a swarm of small satellites that can function as an autonomous community, capable of responding to their environment and completing tasks as a team.
Swarm technologies have several advantages, including the ability to take scientific measurements from multiple points in space, build networks capable of patching themselves if one piece goes down, and have spacecraft systems that don’t need to stay in touch with Earth to respond to changes in the environment. Additionally, a swarm of spacecraft is more resilient against failures or malfunctions within the team.
Starling’s first mission will test out four key technologies. The first is ROMEO, which is designed to autonomously plan and execute maneuvers without any direct input from an operator. This will allow the satellites to fly in a cluster and plan out trajectories on their own.
The mission will also test a Mobile Ad-hoc Network (MANET), which is a communications system composed of wirelessly linked devices that automatically route data based on network conditions. The spacecraft will have crosslink radios that allow communication between spacecraft when they are in range, and the onboard MANET software will determine the best way to route traffic through the network of satellites.
Each CubeSat will have its own “star tracker” sensors onboard, which will pick up the light from their fellow swarm spacecraft and use specialized software to keep track of the rest of the swarm. This unique use of common spacecraft sensors, called StarFOX, will allow the swarm to stay together.
Finally, the Distributed Spacecraft Autonomy (DSA) experiment will demonstrate the ability of a swarm of spacecraft to collect and analyze science data onboard and cooperatively optimize data collection in response. If one satellite detects something interesting in Earth’s ionosphere, it will communicate with the other satellites to observe the same phenomenon. This autonomous reaction to observations will enhance science data collection for future NASA missions.
Once the primary mission is complete, Starling will partner with SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation to test advanced space traffic management techniques between autonomous spacecraft operated by different organizations. This partnership will demonstrate an automated system for ensuring the safe operation of both sets of satellites in low-Earth orbit.
Overall, the Starling mission is a significant step forward in enhancing NASA’s abilities for future science and exploration missions. It will enable swarms of small satellites to work together autonomously, opening up new possibilities for space exploration and scientific research.