Distributed Spacecraft Missions (DSM) architectures provide unique scientific and programmatic benefits including multipoint in-situ measurements, multi-angle viewpoints, and improved understanding of the connections between separately measured phenomena and their time variations. However, these missions impose significant operational demands on ground tracking resources and mission operators alike, by adding to the population of space vehicles tracked and by increasing the volume and frequency of space communication contacts. Moving certain functions from the ground to the spacecraft can provide significant benefits for DSM operations, particularly for missions in Low Earth Orbit which can navigate using the Global Positioning System. The proposed innovation represents a breakthrough in this concept.
The PI of this proposal has developed and provided a proof-of-concept demonstration of a linearized solution to Lambert’s problem, enabling determination of a satellite’s orbit based on two observations of its location or constructing transfer orbits to change a satellite’s position. This linearized function may be transferred to the spacecraft itself, which could be used to automate DSM configuration updates and maintenance via a single spacecraft communication with the ground and further inter-satellite communication.
NASA has been advancing its Core Flight System to further the rapid development and integration of new applications to a common flight software system. In combination with cFS, an onboard software engine capable of employing a linearized solution of Lambert’s problem will yield a powerful and enabling application for a wide variety of missions using distributed spacecraft arrangements. Advanced Space is developing an open source, embedded software application for onboard maneuver planning and relative orbit determination that is compatible with Core Flight System and that enables DSMs to operate with increased autonomy.
Developing advanced distributed spacecraft capabilities will strengthen NASA’s ability to investigate and understand the complex phenomena in astrophysics, heliophysics, Earth science, and planetary science. By enabling autonomous spacecraft operations, improved trajectory design, and increased resolution, this capability will make spacecraft operations feasible that are currently difficult or costly to implement. Advanced Space has identified maneuver planning, orbit determination, collision avoidance and rendezvous, and spacecraft relative position maintenance as important applications of this innovation. But there are other benefits such as lower ground system costs supporting small satellite mission, flexibility provided through incremental fleet upgrades, and improved system fault tolerance that will also be achieved. These developments will enhance NASA’s ability to conduct basic research, improve the public Return on Investment, and ultimately, improve the quality of life on Earth.
Distributed computing capabilities provide system resilience in the case of loss of a single spacecraft, improve the resolution/quality of data recorded, reduce spacecraft costs compared to a single monolithic spacecraft, and enable formation reconfiguration and retasking in response to situational constraints, among other benefits. In addition, by enabling spacecraft to operate autonomously, resources can be reallocated from ground-based control to other concerns.
With this technology, commercial operators will be able to conduct remote sensing operations using formations of small spacecraft that produce data that is simply not available today. Notional applications have been identified in agriculture, land use planning, resource identification and extraction and many more. Being able to harness DSM for these purposes dramatically shifts the feasibility of business plans for a range of space services. Being able to harness constellations of smallsats or cubesats that operate in unison with integrated sensors and long measurement baselines has a game-changing effect on the businesses using them. Additionally, missions and applications requiring constellation maintenance operations or on-orbit refueling and servicing may benefit significantly from this innovation.