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NASA Deploys Fleet Of Satellites In Starling Mission

NASA deploys fleet of satellites in Starling Mission as the mission is poised to launch a cluster of four six-unit (6U)-sized CubeSats into Earth's orbit this July. The primary objective of this mission is to evaluate the capability of these CubeSats to autonomously collaborate without real-time guidance from mission control.

Henry Hamer
Jul 18, 20231158 Shares55149 Views
NASA deploys fleet of satellites in Starling Missionas the mission is poised to launch a cluster of four six-unit (6U)-sized CubeSats into Earth's orbit this July. The primary objective of this mission is to evaluate the capability of these CubeSats to autonomously collaborate without real-time guidance from mission control. This robotic team of small satellites aims to test crucial technologies that will be vital for future deep space missions, which will require more advanced and autonomous spacecraft.
Beyond their initial goal, the CubeSats will also engage in collaboration with SpaceX's Starlink to explore the development of space traffic management techniques. By leveraging the capabilities of Starlink, these CubeSats will contribute to the advancement of techniques that ensure the safe and efficient coordination of space activities.

Mission And Formation

The CubeSats, upon deployment, will function in two distinct configurations, evaluating multiple technologies that could lead to the advancement of collaborative satellite swarms in deep space. This endeavor, named Starling, is slated to span a minimum of six months. The spacecraft will be positioned roughly 355 miles above the Earth's surface, maintaining an approximate spacing of 40 miles between each unit.

Significance Of Sterling

“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.”

Objectives And Swarm Technology

Starling has identified four key objectives that it aims to achieve: enabling autonomous maneuvering to maintain group cohesion, establishing a flexible communication network among the spacecraft, tracking the relative positions of each satellite within the swarm, and enabling independent response to new sensor information by initiating new activities. In essence, Starling seeks to establish a community of small satellites capable of functioning autonomously, adapting to their surroundings, and collaborating effectively.
The utilization of swarm technologies presents promising possibilities, including the ability to gather scientific data from multiple locations in space, construct self-repairing networks, and operate spacecraft systems that can respond to environmental changes without constant reliance on Earth. Furthermore, these swarms provide redundancy, enhancing the resilience of the overall system against potential failures of individual satellites. In the event of one satellite's failure, the others can compensate and maintain the functionality of the collective system.

Swarm Technology in Space with NASA's Starling Mission

Testing New Technologies

As part of its inaugural mission, Starling is conducting tests on four novel technologies. The first technology, called ROMEO (Reconfiguration and Orbit Maintenance Experiments Onboard), focuses on evaluating software specifically developed for autonomous planning and execution of maneuvers, eliminating the need for direct operator intervention. Within the Starling mission, ROMEO empowers the satellites to operate in a cluster, autonomously mapping out trajectories and executing them accordingly.

Advanced Communication And Tracking Systems

In the Starling mission, a Mobile Ad-hoc Network (MANET) is employed as a communication system consisting of interconnected wireless devices. Similar to mesh Wi-Fi networks found on Earth, where multiple routers are strategically placed to enable devices to connect to the strongest signal automatically, Starling spacecraft utilize crosslink radios to establish communication within their range.
The onboard MANET software determines the most efficient routing of data through the satellite network. Starling's objective is to test and validate the capability of this network to autonomously create and maintain a reliable space-based network over an extended period.
Additionally, each CubeSat in the Starling mission is equipped with its own "star tracker" sensors, commonly used to determine a satellite's orientation in space by observing celestial bodies, akin to sailors navigating using the stars at night. Given the relatively close proximity of the satellites within the swarm, these sensors will not only track stars but also detect the light emitted by other swarm spacecraft.
Through the innovative application of specialized software called StarFOX (Starling Formation-Flying Optical Experiment), the collective backdrop of stars will facilitate the cohesion and coordination of the swarm, enabling them to maintain their formation.

Enhanced Data Collection

The DSA (Distributed Spacecraft Autonomy) experiment carried out within the Starling mission showcases the swarm's capacity to independently gather and analyze scientific data onboard, while collaboratively optimizing data collection techniques.
Focused on monitoring Earth's ionosphere, a region within the upper atmosphere, if one satellite identifies an intriguing phenomenon, it will communicate with the other satellites, urging them to observe the same event. The autonomous response of the satellites to such observations greatly enhances the collection of scientific data, presenting valuable insights for future NASA science missions.

Future Collaboration

Following the completion of its primary mission, Starling will embark on a collaboration with SpaceX's Starlink satellite constellation, focusing on testing advanced space traffic management techniques between autonomous spacecraft operated by different organizations.
Through the exchange of future trajectory plans and intentions, NASA and SpaceX aim to demonstrate an automated system that ensures the safe operation of both satellite sets while in close proximity within low-Earth orbit. This partnership signifies a significant step towards establishing a framework for cooperative and secure satellite operations in space.

Conclusion

“Starling 1.5 will be foundational for helping understand rules of the road for space traffic management,” said Hunter.
The utilization of robotics is increasingly vital in both crewed and uncrewed space exploration. The capability to operate satellites and spacecraft in a networked, autonomous, and coordinated manner holds paramount importance for NASA. This advancement represents a significant stride towards enabling humanity to venture into uncharted territories and conduct more sophisticated scientific endeavors in the future.
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