NASA is preparing to launch Starling, its first satellite swarm. Instead of communicating directly with the four Starling cubesats, mission operators will send instructions to the swarm as a single entity.
If successful, “swarms have a potential to revolutionize the way we do science,” said Howard Cannon, NASA Starling project manager at the NASA Ames Research Center. “Instead of having one monolithic spacecraft that you are dependent on operating properly, you can have multiple smaller spacecraft that are less expensive.”
Swarms also offer NASA the opportunity to gather scientific data from multiple locations with far less handholding than traditional constellations.
HelioSwarm, for example, is a $250 million mission NASA plans to launch in 2028 to study solar wind turbulence with nine satellites. HelioSwarm mission managers will communicate with the hub satellite built by Northrop Grumman, which will coordinate operations of eight smaller spacecraft built by Blue Canyon Technologies.
“HelioSwarm’s nine spacecraft form an observatory to provide the first ever simultaneous, multiscale observations in the solar wind needed to understand space plasma turbulence,” Harlan Spence, HelioSwarm principal investigator and director of the University of New Hampshire Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space, said by email. “Turbulence is inherently a multiscale process and those multiple scale sizes must be sampled simultaneously to understand how energy is conveyed.”
Despite the promise, swarms in general and the Starling mission specifically present challenges. It remains to be seen whether communications, navigation and autonomy technologies are advanced enough for swarm operations. NASA intends to find out during the six-month Starling mission with a series of experiments.
First up is the Mobile Ad-hoc Network experiment. Starling mission managers will test whether the six-unit cubesats can establish and maintain a dynamic communications network.
“If one of the satellites goes out of range or fails, how do you make sure that network still meets a certain level of reliability and throughput,” asked Shey Sabripour, founder and CEO of CesiumAstro, which is providing Starling’s software-defined radios with S-band intersatellite links. “That is what we are 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 various formations and prevent collisions.
“For the first time, we will give a swarm the ability to autonomously navigate in space without GPS, using only cameras embedded in these four cubesats pointing at one another,” said Simone D’Amico, who leads Stanford University’s Space Rendezvous Laboratory. “By exchanging and processing these cameras measurements, we are able to determine the orbits of all the spacecraft.”
The third demo, Reconfiguration and Orbit Maintenance Experiments Onboard (ROMEO), will test whether Starling satellites can maneuver autonomously to achieve their objectives.
“Coordinated autonomous maneuvering will be required for future constellations and swarms where communications delays and bandwidth limitations make ground-based control impractical,” said Austin Probe, chief technology officer for Emergent Space Technologies. “ROMEO is integrating our Autopilot and Navigator flight software products to demonstrate autonomous station keeping and reconfiguration of the Starling swarm.”
While the Starling satellites conduct autonomous operations in orbit, L3Harris Technologies will be running a variation of its flight dynamics planning software on the ground.
“The ground planning software is a reference to see how well the autonomous satellites are performing in this kind of test scenario,” said Praveen Kurian, L3Harris general manager for space superiority.
The final 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 regions of particularly high or low density. Starling satellites “will automatically adjust their measurement techniques in order 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, alongside seven other cubesat missions, is a NASA Venture Class Launch Services demonstration.
First, though, Firefly plans to complete Flight 2, the company’s second orbital test launch. Firefly attempted in September to send its first Alpha to orbit, but fell short due to the failure of one of Alpha’s four engines.
Another orbital test flight is set for July. After that, the company “will go as quickly as possible” toward the NASA launch, said Kim Jennett, Firefly marketing director.
For Firefly, Starling is “very significant in developing a long-term partnership with NASA,” said Firefly CEO Tom Markusic. “We feel very honored to be part of that program.”
When the satellites are in orbit, Blue Canyon Technologies, the Raytheon Technologies subsidiary that also manufactured the Starling satellites, will provide mission operations support.
“The mission gives BCT the opportunity to demonstrate the flexibility of our mission operation system, from ground scheduling to retrieval and uploading mission plans to timely mission data delivery, while operating a constellation of spacecraft,” said Stephanee Borck, BCT Starling program manager.
This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine.