NASA Mission To Test Technology for Satellite Swarms

Carnegie Mellon’s Zac Manchester leads three-satellite experiment

A NASA mission slated for launch on Friday, Jan. 22, will place three tiny satellites into low-Earth orbit, where they will demonstrate how satellites might track and communicate with each other, setting the stage for swarms of thousands of small satellites that can work cooperatively and autonomously.

A photo of Zac ManchesterZac Manchester
, an assistant professor in Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute and the mission’s principal investigator, said small satellites have grown in popularity over the last 10 years, as some companies already are launching hundreds into orbit to perform tasks such as Earth imaging and weather forecasting.

These satellites now are individually controlled from the ground. As swarms grow bigger and more sophisticated, Manchester noted, they will need to respond to commands almost as a single entity. The new mission, dubbed V-R3x, will test technologies that might make that possible.

“This mission is a precursor to more advanced swarming capabilities and autonomous formation flying,” Manchester said.

NASA also is interested in using swarms of small satellites beyond Earth. Swarms of satellites around the moon, for instance, could provide communications and navigation aid for lunar exploration, including NASA’s Artemis program. It will be essential that extraterrestrial swarms operate autonomously, Manchester said.

V-R3x, a NASA Small Spacecraft Technology program-funded technology demonstration mission, is implemented by a small, dedicated group of engineers known as Payload Accelerator for CubeSat Endeavors (PACE) at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. The group aims to design, develop and fly space experiments rapidly and more cost effectively.

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