About the size of two stacked cereal boxes and weighing 12 kilograms each, four spacecraft will launch into low Earth orbit Monday evening from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, marking a significant milestone in “swarm” technology by NASA’s Ames Research Center.
Aptly named the Starling mission, the operation will test the spacecraft’s capacity to communicate and coordinate activities on their own, a technology that evokes the image of starlings flying together in a murmuration.
“What we mean by a swarm is that it's a group of spacecraft that are working together, cooperating in order to achieve an objective,” said Howard Cannon, project manager for the Starling mission at Ames Research Center.
Cannon differentiated the swarm from other satellite groupings, sometimes referred to as constellations, by its relative autonomy; the swarm will operate with minimal direction from ground control. “So, you might have a dozen spacecraft up there and you can say, ‘Swarm go do this, swarm, go do that,’ versus having to command and control each spacecraft individually,” Cannon said.
The Starling mission will demonstrate four key technologies, broadly related to how the spacecraft respond to their environment and work as a team. The first will test the spacecraft’s capacity for autonomous maneuvering, or how well they stay together without direct input from an operator, The second will test the adaptability of the communication network, and the third will test the spacecraft’s ability to keep track of each other’s positions.
The fourth technology, referred to as “distributed spacecraft autonomy,” is a particularly novel feature that allows the spacecraft to respond to new information and execute activities with little oversight from ground control.
For instance, the Starling mission will investigate the Earth’s ionosphere (or upper atmosphere), and if a spacecraft detects something new, it will communicate this with the rest of the swarm, allowing for data collection and analysis to occur in real time that minimizes the potential delays of ground control communication.
“The spacecraft will automatically on their own look for interesting features,” Cannon said. “And if they see something, they'll decide between themselves, without any ground input, which ones they're going to pay attention to ... and which ones they’re going to explore for new phenomena out there.”
Each spacecraft is made up of 6-unit "CubeSats," a class of nanosatellites pioneered at Ames Research Center. Originally developed as a cost-effective measure to test technologies and run experiments in space, CubeSats have been used since 2006, with the first swarm coordination occurring in 2016 when NASA launched two, 1.5-unit CubeSats as part of its Nodes mission, according to NASA’s website.
The Starling mission spacecraft will fly in two formations, first in-train before moving out into a set of stable relative orbits spaced about 40 miles apart and 355 miles above Earth. The mission will run for six months with a follow-up mission, Starling 1.5, that will run for nine months, Cannon said.
This follow-up will focus on space traffic management issues. There are approximately 4,000 satellites in low Earth orbit right now, causing some overcrowding, Cannon said. As a result, Starling 1.5 will examine conflict de-escalation, observing how spacecraft move out of each other’s way.
The Starling mission lays the groundwork for future missions with swarm technology that go well beyond Earth's orbit.
“With the development of these technologies, we perceive future additional science missions, not only in low Earth orbit but also in deep space,” Cannon said, referring to HelioSwarm, which will investigate solar wind turbulence across large distances and will launch in 2028.
Liftoff for the Starling mission is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. PST on Monday, July 17 and can be watched live on YouTube.