Through Starling, NASA will test complex swarm operations - SpaceNews

Through Starling, NASA will test complex swarm operations – SpaceNews

NASA is preparing to launch Starling, its first satellite swarm. Instead of communicating directly with the four Starling cube sets, the mission operators will send instructions to the swarm as a single unit.

If they succeed, “swarms have the potential to revolutionize the way we do science,” said Howard Cannon, NASA Starling project manager at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “Instead of having a monolithic spacecraft that you depend on to function properly, you can have several smaller spacecraft that are cheaper.”

Swarms also offer NASA the ability to collect scientific data from multiple locations with much less hand holding than traditional constellations.

HelioSwarm, for example, is a $ 250 million mission that NASA plans to launch in 2028 to study solar wind turbulence with nine satellites. HelioSwarm’s mission leader will communicate with the hub satellite built by Northrop Grumman, which will coordinate operations for eight smaller spacecraft built by Blue Canyon Technologies.

“HelioSwarm’s nine spacecraft form an observatory to provide the first simultaneous, multi-scale observations in the solar wind needed to understand space plasma turbulence,” said Harlan Spence, HelioSwarm’s principal investigator and director of the University of New Hampshire Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space. via e-mail. “Turbulence is in itself a multi-scale process and these multiple scale sizes must be sampled simultaneously to understand how energy is conveyed.”

Despite the promise, swarms in general and the Starling mission offer specific challenges. It remains to be seen whether communication, navigation and autonomy techniques are advanced enough for swarm operations. NASA intends to find out during the six-month Starling mission with a series of experiments.


First out is the Mobile Ad-hoc Network experiment. Starling’s mission managers will test whether the cube set with six units can establish and maintain a dynamic communication network.

“If one of the satellites goes out of range or fails, how do you make sure the network still meets a certain level of reliability and throughput,” asked Shey Sabripour, founder and CEO of CesiumAstro, which provides Starling’s software-defined radios with S-band intersatellite links. “That’s what we’re trying to solve here with NASA.”

Next up is the Starlink Formation-Flying Optical Experiment, known as StarFOX. Starling satellites will rely on star trackers to move into different formations and prevent collisions.

“For the first time, we’ll give a swarm the ability to autonomously navigate in space without GPS, using only cameras embedded in these four cube sets that point at each other,” said Simone D’Amico, who heads Stanford University’s Space Rendezvous Laboratory. “By exchanging and processing the measurements of these cameras, we can determine the orbits of all spacecraft.”

The third demon, Reconfiguration and Orbit Maintenance Experiments Onboard (ROMEO), will test whether Starling satellites can operate autonomously to achieve their goals.

“Coordinated autonomous maneuvering will be required for future constellations and swarms where communication delays and bandwidth limitations make ground-based control impractical,” said Austin Probe, chief technical officer of Emergent Space Technologies. “ROMEO integrates our autopilot and navigator flight software to demonstrate autonomous station holding and reconfiguration of the Star Swarm.”

While the Starling satellites perform autonomous orbital operations, L3Harris Technologies will run a variant of its ground – dynamic flight planning software.

“The ground plan software is a reference to see how well the autonomous satellites perform in this type of test scenario,” said Praveen Kurian, L3Harris’ general manager for space superiority.

The latest Starling experiment, Distributed Spacecraft Autonomy, relies on artificial intelligence to make plans based on ionospheric observations. With GPS receivers, Starling satellites will monitor ionospheric density and move around to further explore areas of particularly high or low density. Starling satellites “will automatically adjust their measurement techniques to take advantage of their relative positions,” Cannon said.


The Starling mission is scheduled to launch later this year from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, on a Firefly Aerospace Alpha rocket. The launch, along with seven other cubesat missions, is a demonstration of NASA Venture Class Launch Services.

First, however, Firefly plans to complete Flight 2, the company’s second orbital test launch. Firefly tried to send its first Alpha into orbit in September, but failed due to a fault in one of Alpha’s four engines.

Another orbital test flight is canceled in July. After that, the company will “go as fast as possible” towards the NASA launch, said Kim Jennett, marketing director for Firefly.

For Firefly, Starling is “very important in developing a long-term partnership with NASA,” says Firefly’s CEO Tom Markusic. “We feel very honored to be a part of that program.”

When the satellites are in orbit, Blue Canyon Technologies, a 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 retrieving and uploading mission plans to fast delivery of mission data, while operating a constellation of spacecraft,” said Stephanee Borck, BCT Starling’s Program Manager.

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

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