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NASA's Starling CubeSats set in motion: an innovative swarm in LEO
Starling cubesats in orbit - illustration only.
NASA's Starling CubeSats set in motion: an innovative swarm in LEO
by Brad Bartz
Los Angeles CA (SPX) Jul 19, 2023

NASA's quartet of Starling CubeSats has successfully deployed from Rocket Lab's Electron kick stage, marking a significant step forward in the field of satellite swarm technologies. These cutting-edge spacecraft, designed to work in cohesion as a "swarm", have successfully reached low Earth orbit and are set to commence their mission of testing advanced technologies for autonomous maneuvering, networking, decision-making, and relative positioning.

The immediate task for the Starling swarm is to power up and establish initial contact with the ground. This process may transpire overnight or within the ensuing few days.

The Starling mission, funded by NASA's Small Spacecraft Technology program at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, and the Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington, aims to enable small satellites to cooperate autonomously, without the need for real-time updates from mission control. This technology is critical to future deep space missions, where highly autonomous spacecraft will be indispensable.

Program Manager for NASA's Small Spacecraft Technology program, Roger Hunter, commented on the mission's ambitious nature. "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. The mission represents a significant step forward."

The Starling project has four primary capabilities it intends to test: autonomous maneuvering as a group, the establishment of a flexible communications network amongst the spacecraft, maintaining an understanding of each other's relative position, and independent reaction to new data from onboard sensors. Ultimately, the mission aims to create a satellite swarm capable of functioning as an autonomous community, adept at responding to their environment and executing tasks as a team.

The notion of swarm technology offers intriguing prospects for future space missions. Not only does it allow for scientific measurements to be collected from multiple points in space, but it also ensures the resilience of the mission against individual spacecraft malfunctions. The swarm's inherent redundancy means that even if one satellite fails, the remaining members can compensate, ensuring mission continuity.

This first Starling mission will test four state-of-the-art technologies. The ROMEO (Reconfiguration and Orbit Maintenance Experiments Onboard) software, which enables autonomous planning and execution of maneuvers, is first among them. The Starling spacecraft are also equipped with a Mobile Ad-hoc Network (MANET), a robust communications system that auto-routes data based on network conditions, and star tracker sensors for maintaining relative positions within the swarm.

In addition, the Distributed Spacecraft Autonomy (DSA) experiment will showcase how a satellite swarm can collaboratively optimize data collection by analyzing science data onboard. If one satellite detects an interesting phenomenon in Earth's ionosphere, it will communicate this to the rest of the swarm, enhancing the capacity for autonomous scientific observations.

Following the completion of its primary mission, Starling will collaborate with SpaceX's Starlink satellite constellation to test advanced space traffic management techniques. This collaboration will aid in establishing rules of the road for space traffic management, setting up an automated system for ensuring safe operation of different organizations' autonomous spacecraft in low-Earth orbit.

The Starling mission's successful launch and ongoing operations emphasize the importance of autonomous robotic systems in both crewed and uncrewed space exploration. The ability to operate satellites in a networked, autonomous, and coordinated manner represents a giant leap in enabling humanity to explore further and conduct more advanced science than ever before.

Related Links
Starling at NASA
Microsat News and Nanosat News at SpaceMart.com

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NASA's Starling Mission Sending Swarm of Satellites into Orbit
Moffett Field CA (SPX) Jul 12, 2023
This July, NASA is sending a team of four six-unit (6U)-sized 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, where more complex and autonomous spacecraft will be essential. Once launched, the four CubeSats will ... read more

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