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Starling spacecraft swarm completes primary mission
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Starling spacecraft swarm completes primary mission
by Clarence Oxford
Los Angeles CA (SPX) May 31, 2024

After ten months in orbit, the Starling spacecraft swarm has achieved its primary mission objectives, marking a major milestone in swarm technology.

Satellite swarms could potentially be used for deep space exploration. These autonomous networks can self-navigate, manage experiments, and adapt to environmental changes without relying on constant communication with Earth.

"The success of Starling's initial mission represents a landmark achievement in the development of autonomous networks of small spacecraft," said Roger Hunter, program manager for NASA's Small Spacecraft Technology program at NASA's Ames Research Center in California's Silicon Valley. "The team has been very successful in achieving our objectives and adapting in the face of challenges."

Distributed Spacecraft Autonomy (DSA) Experiment
The DSA experiment onboard Starling demonstrated the swarm's capability to optimize data collection. The CubeSats analyzed Earth's ionosphere by identifying phenomena and reaching consensus on the approach for analysis.

By distributing observational tasks, each spacecraft can either gather different data or collaborate for deeper analysis, reducing human workload and maintaining operations without new ground commands. This marks the first time a swarm has autonomously shared information and operations data to generate efficient plans and react quickly to changes in observations.

Mobile Ad-hoc Network (MANET) Experiment
A spacecraft swarm requires a network for internal communication. The MANET experiment successfully established such a network, allowing the swarm to relay commands and data among the spacecraft and to the ground.

The team achieved all MANET objectives, including routing commands and data to a spacecraft with communication issues, showcasing the benefits of a cooperative swarm. "The success of MANET demonstrates the robustness of a swarm," said Howard Cannon, Starling project manager at NASA Ames. "For example, when the radio went down on one swarm spacecraft, we 'side-loaded' the spacecraft from another direction, sending commands, software updates, and other vital information to the spacecraft from another swarm member."

Starling Formation-Flying Optical Experiment (StarFOX)
StarFOX uses star trackers to identify other swarm members, satellites, or debris, and estimate their positions and velocities. This experiment is the first to demonstrate this type of swarm navigation, including tracking multiple swarm members simultaneously and sharing observations to improve orbit accuracy.

Near the end of the mission, the swarm was maneuvered into a passive safety ellipse. In this formation, the team achieved a key milestone by demonstrating the ability to autonomously estimate the swarm's orbits using only inter-satellite measurements.

Reconfiguration and Orbit Maintenance Experiments Onboard (ROMEO)

The ROMEO system tests onboard maneuver planning and execution, estimating orbits and planning maneuvers to new orbits. The team has successfully demonstrated the system's capabilities and is refining it to reduce propellant use. The system's development will continue throughout Starling's mission extension.

Future Mission: Starling 1.5
With primary mission objectives complete, the team will proceed with the Starling 1.5 mission extension, testing space traffic coordination with SpaceX's Starlink constellation. This project will explore how constellations operated by different users can share information through a ground hub to avoid collisions.

"Starling's partnership with SpaceX is the next step in operating large networks of spacecraft and understanding how two autonomously maneuvering systems can safely operate in proximity to each other. As the number of operational spacecraft increases each year, we must learn how to manage orbital traffic," said Hunter.

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