NASA’s Robotic Swarm Takes Flight: Communications Achieved for Four Starling CubeSats

NASA Starling Mission

NASA’s Starling mission will test new technologies for autonomous swarm navigation on four CubeSats in low-Earth orbit. Credit: Blue Canyon Technologies/NASA

NASA’s Starling CubeSats are progressing through the final stage of commissioning. While three are functioning as expected, one, named Blinky, faced communication and propulsion issues, which were addressed. After commissioning, the spacecraft will align for swarm activities testing.

Mission managers have established command communications with all four of NASA’s Starling CubeSats! The spacecraft are progressing through payload and propulsion tests, the final stage of a pre-operations checklist called commissioning.

The Starling spacecraft – which project team members nicknamed Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde – are part of an ambitious test to develop self-coordinating robotic swarms for space research and exploration.

Progress and Communication Issues

Progress so far has been as expected for three of the four spacecraft – Pinky, Inky, and Clyde. An initial communication issue with Blinky was addressed by updating estimates of its orbital position and instructing the satellite to better align its antennas with ground station receivers. Operators have achieved operational two-way communications with all Starling units and are still investigating the root cause of the issue.

Troubleshooting Blinky’s Control System

In addition, data analysis of Blinky’s onboard attitude control system, which manages the spacecraft’s orientation, showed that it was having to work to counteract a disturbance. Initial troubleshooting suggested this was likely connected to a propulsion system leak, which was subsequently remediated. Operators are working to better understand the issue and how it might impact the mission.

Future Plans

After this final stage of commissioning, the Starling spacecraft will begin a procedure called a “drift arrest maneuver.” This will involve adjusting the orbital positions of each craft to bring them into proper alignment, preparing them to begin testing swarm activities.


The names Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde are a reference to the ghosts in the classic arcade game “Pac-Man,” which was first released by Namco in 1980. In the game, these four characters are the enemies that try to catch Pac-Man as he navigates through the maze, eating dots and avoiding them. Each ghost has its own behavior, which affects how it chases Pac-Man.

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