NASA’s Starling mission aims to test autonomous cooperation among CubeSats, paving the way for future complex, deep space missions. After their primary objective, the CubeSats will collaborate with SpaceX’s Starlink to develop space traffic management techniques.
This July, NASA is set to dispatch a group of four six-unit (6U)-sized CubeSats into Earth’s orbit to examine whether they’re able to cooperate on their own, independent of real-time updates from mission control. While that kind of autonomous cooperation may not sound too difficult for humans, this team will be robotic – composed of small satellites to test out key technologies for the future of deep space missions, where more complex and autonomous spacecraft will be essential.
Mission and Formation
Once launched, the CubeSats will operate in two different formations, testing several technologies that could pave the way toward a future of cooperative satellite swarms in deep space. The mission, dubbed Starling, will last at least six months. It will position the spacecraft approximately 355 miles above Earth, with about a 40-mile spacing between each one.
Significance of Starling
“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,” said Roger Hunter, program manager for NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “The mission represents a significant step forward.”
NASA is sending a team of four CubeSats into orbit around Earth to see if they’re able to cooperate on their own, without real-time updates from mission control. While that kind of autonomous cooperation may not sound too difficult for humans, this team will be robotic – composed of small satellites to test out key technologies for the future of deep space missions. Credit: NASA’s Ames Research Center
Objectives and Swarm Technology
Starling’s four primary objectives include autonomously maneuvering to stay grouped, creating a flexible communications network among the spacecraft, tracking each other’s relative positions, and independently responding to new sensor information by initiating new activities. Essentially, Starling aims to establish a swarm of small satellites capable of functioning as an autonomous community, proficient at reacting to their environment and working as a team.
Swarm technologies have the potential to collect scientific data from multiple points in space, construct self-repairing networks, and operate spacecraft systems that don’t require constant contact with Earth to respond to changes in the environment. These swarms also offer redundancy, making the collective system more resilient against individual spacecraft failures. If one fails, the others can compensate.
Testing New Technologies
Starling’s inaugural mission is testing four new technologies. The first, known as ROMEO (Reconfiguration and Orbit Maintenance Experiments Onboard), is testing software designed for autonomous planning and execution of maneuvers without any direct operator input. In the context of Starling, it will enable the satellites to fly in a cluster, autonomously mapping and executing trajectories.
Advanced Communication and Tracking Systems
A Mobile Ad-hoc Network (MANET) is a communications system composed of wirelessly linked devices in which data is routed and rerouted automatically based on network conditions. An example on Earth is mesh Wi-Fi, in which multiple internet routers are placed throughout a home, allowing mobile devices to automatically connect to the strongest signal. In the same way, the Starling spacecraft have crosslink radios that allow communication between spacecraft when they are in range, with the onboard MANET software determining the best way to route traffic through the network of satellites. Starling will test this network, showing whether the system can automatically create and maintain a network in space over time.
Each CubeSat also has its own “star tracker” sensors onboard, normally used so that a satellite can keep track of its own orientation in space, much like sailors using the stars to navigate at night. Because the satellites will be relatively close together, in addition to stars, these sensors will pick up the light from their fellow swarm spacecraft and use specialized software to keep track of the rest of the swarm. Called StarFOX (Starling Formation-Flying Optical Experiment), this unique use of common spacecraft sensors will allow the backdrop of the stars to keep the swarm together.
Enhanced Data Collection
Finally, the Distributed Spacecraft Autonomy (DSA) experiment demonstrates the ability of a swarm of spacecraft to collect and analyze science data onboard and cooperatively optimize data collection in response. The satellites will monitor Earth’s ionosphere – part of the upper atmosphere – and if one detects something interesting, it will communicate to the other satellites to observe the same phenomenon. The ability for satellites to autonomously react to an observation will enhance science data collection for a host of future NASA science missions.
After its primary mission is complete, the next stage for Starling will be a partnership with SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation to test advanced space traffic management techniques between autonomous spacecraft operated by different organizations. By sharing future trajectory intentions with each other, NASA and SpaceX will demonstrate an automated system for ensuring that both sets of satellites can operate safely while in relative proximity in low-Earth orbit.
“Starling 1.5 will be foundational for helping understand rules of the road for space traffic management,” said Hunter.
With robotics playing a critical role in both crewed and uncrewed exploration, the ability to operate satellites and spacecraft in a networked, autonomous, and coordinated capacity is paramount for NASA. It’s a step towards ensuring that humanity can venture further and perform superior science in the future.
NASA Ames leads the Starling project. NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program, based at NASA Ames and within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), funds and manages the Starling mission. Blue Canyon Technologies designed and manufactured the spacecraft buses and is providing mission operations support. Rocket Lab USA, Inc. provides launch and integration services. Partners supporting Starling’s payload experiments include Stanford University’s Space Rendezvous Lab in Stanford, California, Emergent Space Technologies of Laurel, Maryland, CesiumAstro of Austin, Texas, L3Harris Technologies, Inc., of Melbourne, Florida, and NASA Ames – with funding support by NASA’s Game Changing Development program within STMD.