Researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Centre in California’s Silicon Valley are developing satellite swarms, which are groups of spacecraft working together as a unit. A swarm’s ability to perform autonomously will make new types of science and exploration possible, particularly as they venture farther into deep space.
For decades, Ames’ has been on the work. This summer, swarm science will reach a major milestone as NASA launches the Starling mission into space. It will test technologies that let four spacecraft operate in a coordinated manner without resources from the ground. In addition, the results of Starling’s experiments will be of great interest to researchers at Ames who, right now, are preparing a future swarm mission to study the Sun.
THE ROAD TO SUCCESSFUL SWARMS
A swarm is not to be confused with a constellation, although both refer to a group of spacecraft working toward a common goal. If you are operating many spacecraft individually, you have a constellation. While useful in certain scenarios, scaling up their numbers can make costs and mission complexity skyrocket.
Contrast that with a multi-talented, self-coordinating swarm. These spacecraft know how to communicate with each other, monitor and maintain their relative spacing, and manoeuvre to get where each needs to be. They will be able to collect data as a group, deciding which member of the team is best placed to take the optimal measurement and which should relay that data to Earth. This greatly simplifies the job of ground controllers who would otherwise need to command each spacecraft to meet a mission’s science objectives.
“In the past, that couldn’t be done affordably because we had to control each spacecraft individually,” said Butler Hine, a flight project manager at Ames. “But the emergence of small satellite technologies gave us new possibilities and a chance to change the way we operate them.”
Ames became a pioneer in the use of CubeSats and small satellites (SmallSats) to run innovative, cost-effective missions, testing technologies and performing biology experiments in space. Once CubeSats and SmallSats had matured, Hine became what he jokingly calls “the swarm czar.” His job was to create a roadmap of swarm technologies, identifying those already in existence as well as the missing technologies Ames would need to invest in to make swarm science missions a reality. He looked at core technologies Ames was investigating and helped plot a course to further investments to make swarm science missions a reality.
An early example of swarm coordination was the Nodes mission. In May 2016, the project put two satellites into Earth orbit to test their ability to communicate and negotiate which would downlink their data to mission control on the ground.
(Sourced from NASA)