Small satellite (smallsat) swarms and constellations are widely used in low Earth orbit (LEO), and government operators have expressed interest in missions at higher altitudes and in proximity operations. These new mission regimes are more challenging and require greater onboard autonomy capabilities to act and plan without a ground system in the loop. To address this need, we propose to develop an onboard planning capability for smallsats. This software enables constellations or swarms to respond dynamically to failures and opportunities independent of ground systems. The innovation addresses specific gaps in the state of the art identified in our subtopic to enable operation of swarms without the need for ground system commanding. We identify two critical qualities the planner should have. First is the ability to construct a plan that incorporates likely exception information as a safety check. This reduces the frequency of replanning and builds in robustness to exceptions that are well-understood by the operator. The second quality is a standard interface with specialized “subplanners” for functions like maneuvers, constellation design, and so on. This second ability ensures the planning software can interact flexibly with external software, which may be mandated for particular applications. Subplanners are also an appealing approach for decomposing a large planning problem into more tractable sub-problems. The proposed Phase I work will develop a proof-of-concept planner and demonstrate its operation in conjunction with Emergent’s flight software for autonomous mission execution.
NASA has expressed interest in missions involving cooperating small satellites above low Earth orbit, which will benefit from onboard planning. More conventional NASA missions can also benefit from greater onboard autonomous features, including planning. We are targeting future NASA space missions such as Landsat Next (Earth Science), Lunar Gateway and LunaNet (Exploration), Solar-Terrestrial Observer for the Response of the Magnetosphere, HelioSwarm, and Auroral Reconstruction CubeSwarm (Heliophysics).
Various non-NASA government entities have expressed interest in small satellite missions in environments that will benefit from onboard planning. These include Air Force Research Laboratory’s Cislunar Highway Patrol System, and the Space Development Agency’s Tracking and Transport Layer.