NASA’s Ames Research Center is working on developing satellite swarms, groups of spacecraft that can operate autonomously without individual management from mission controllers. These swarms will enable new types of science and exploration, particularly in deep space. By communicating with each other, maintaining relative spacing, and coordinating their movements, the spacecraft in a swarm will be able to collect data as a group, determining the best measurements and transmitting the data back to Earth. This simplifies the job of ground controllers and reduces costs and mission complexity compared to traditional individual spacecraft operations.
Ames has been at the forefront of using CubeSats and small satellites (SmallSats) for cost-effective missions, and the emergence of small satellite technologies has opened up new possibilities for swarm missions. Butler Hine, a flight project manager at Ames, has been instrumental in developing swarm technologies. He has created a roadmap for swarm missions, identifying existing technologies and the necessary investments required to make swarm science missions a reality. One early example of swarm coordination was the Nodes mission, which deployed two satellites to test their ability to communicate and negotiate data downlinking.
Ames has also developed the Distributed Spacecraft Autonomy project (DSA) to mature swarm technologies through simulation studies and spacecraft launches. DSA will allow a swarm to plan and schedule its operations based on different conditions, enabling the swarm to make autonomous decisions about science observations. The DSA team has already simulated the coordination of 100 SmallSats and will soon test DSA in space using four Starling spacecraft.
Swarms of spacecraft are essential for deep space exploration because of the limitations of communication signals and data bandwidth. Directly controlling multiple deep-space satellites is impractical due to signal delays. Swarms also offer advantages such as multi-point science measurements, increased robustness through redundancy, and quick, autonomous reactions to collected data. NASA’s HelioSwarm mission, managed at Ames, will deploy a swarm of eight small satellites and one central “hub” spacecraft to study solar wind turbulence.
NASA’s development of satellite swarms represents a major step forward in autonomous space exploration. These collaborative satellites have the potential for groundbreaking discoveries in the future of space science.