At NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, researchers are developing a groundbreaking approach to space exploration: satellite swarms. These swarms consist of groups of spacecraft that work together as a unified unit, eliminating the need for individual management by mission controllers. The autonomous capabilities of these swarms open up new possibilities for scientific research and exploration, especially as they venture into the depths of outer space.
The development of swarm technologies at Ames has been an ongoing effort for many years. This summer, a significant milestone will be reached with the launch of the Starling mission. This mission will test technologies that enable four spacecraft to operate in a coordinated manner without relying on ground-based resources.
It’s important to understand that a swarm is different from a constellation, although both involve groups of spacecraft working toward a common goal. While constellations can be useful in certain scenarios, increasing their numbers can lead to soaring costs and mission complexity. On the other hand, a self-coordinating swarm possesses multiple talents. These spacecraft are capable of communicating with each other, maintaining relative spacing, and maneuvering to their designated positions. They work as a team to collect data, determining which member is best positioned to take optimal measurements and relay the information back to Earth.
“In the past, controlling each spacecraft individually was not cost-effective,” explains Butler Hine, a flight project manager at Ames. “However, advancements in small satellite technologies have opened up new possibilities and allowed us to change our operational approach.”
Ames has been at the forefront of using CubeSats and small satellites (SmallSats) to conduct innovative and cost-effective missions, including experiments in biology conducted in space. As these technologies matured, Hine took on the role of “swarm czar” and developed a roadmap for swarm technologies, identifying existing technologies and the additional investments required to make swarm science missions a reality. One early example of swarm coordination was the Nodes mission.
While Nodes was a small-scale swarm, it represented an important step forward. Effective communication is crucial for any successful team. Building on this foundation, researchers at Ames developed the Distributed Spacecraft Autonomy (DSA) project. DSA focuses on maturing technologies essential for future swarms through simulation studies and actual spacecraft launches. It grants swarms the ability to plan and schedule operations under different conditions, allowing them to determine the most fruitful science observations and assign tasks to the most suitable spacecraft at any given time. The DSA team conducted virtual simulations with 100 coordinated SmallSats, and soon, DSA will undergo its first real-life test with all four Starling spacecraft.
Ames has deep roots in shared planning abilities, particularly in aeronautics and human spaceflight research. For example, the Astrobee project, led by Ames, involves free-floating robots on the International Space Station that learn to coordinate and perform tasks without direct astronaut intervention.
Exploring With Satellite Swarms
As we explore deeper into the solar system with cooperative teams of spacecraft, the autonomy of these swarms becomes increasingly important. The time delay for communication signals and limitations on data bandwidth make direct control of multiple deep-space satellites impractical. Swarms offer new opportunities, such as positioning multiple small spacecraft to function as a large observatory, similar to a telescope with a vast field of view.
“Satellite Swarms provide numerous additional capabilities,” explains Howard Cannon, the project manager for Starling at Ames. “They enable multi-point science measurements, offer robustness through redundant spacecraft, and react quickly and autonomously to interesting data they collect.”
These qualities will be highly valuable in Butler Hine’s latest project, HelioSwarm. As the project manager, Hine oversees a mission that aims to send a swarm to investigate mysteries surrounding solar wind. The mission involves eight small satellites and one central “hub” spacecraft, which will collectively capture simultaneous in-space measurements of solar wind turbulence across various distances. Solar wind turbulence refers to the fluctuations in the flow of charged particles continuously emanating from the Sun.
Synergy, often associated with human teams working harmoniously, is a concept equally applicable to spacecraft. The experts at NASA, guiding the maturation of spacecraft swarms, are striving for collaboration among these satellites, as they hold tremendous promise for the future of space science.
Image Source: Blue Canyon Technologies/NASA