A swarm of NASA spacecraft shows they can cooperate with each other

A swarm of NASA spacecraft shows they can cooperate with each other
A swarm of NASA spacecraft shows they can cooperate with each other


NASA’s four Starling spacecraft – Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde – launched last July, have successfully completed the key objectives of their mission: autonomous swarm configurations.

Satellite swarms may one day be used in deep space exploration. An autonomous network of spacecraft could navigate on its own, manage scientific experiments, and execute maneuvers to respond to environmental changes without the burden of significant communications delays between the swarm and Earth.

“The success of Starling’s initial mission represents a historic achievement in the development of autonomous networks of small spacecraft,” he said. it’s a statement Roger Hunter, director of NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program. “The team has been very successful in achieving our goals and adapting to challenges.”

The Distributed Spacecraft Autonomy (DSA) experiment, conducted aboard Starling, demonstrated the spacecraft swarm’s ability to optimize data collection across the entire swarm. The CubeSats analyzed the Earth’s ionosphere, identifying interesting phenomena and reaching a consensus between each satellite on an analysis approach.

By sharing observation work in a swarm, each spacecraft can “share the load” and observe different data or work together to provide deeper analysis, reduce human workload and keep the spacecraft running without the need for new commands sent from the ground.


The success of the experiment means that Starling is the first swarm to autonomously distribute information and operations data between spacecraft to generate plans to work more efficiently, and the first demonstration of a fully distributed onboard reasoning system capable of reacting quickly to changes in scientific observations.

A swarm of spaceships needs a network to communicate with each other. The Mobile Ad-hoc Network (MANET) experiment automatically established a network in space, allowing the swarm to transmit commands and transfer data between each other and Earth, as well as sharing information about other experiments cooperatively.

The team successfully completed all objectives of the MANET experiment, including demonstrating commands and routing data to one of the spacecraft that was having problems with space-to-ground communications, a valuable benefit of a cooperative spacecraft swarm.


Navigating and operating with each other and the planet is an important part of forming a spaceship swarm. The Starling Formation Flying Optical Experiment, or StarFOX, uses star trackers to recognize a member of the swarm, another satellite, or space debris from the background star field, and then estimate the position and speed of each spacecraft.

The experiment is the first published demonstration of this type of swarm navigation, including the ability to track multiple members of a swarm simultaneously and the ability to share observations between spacecraft, improving accuracy in determining the orbit of each swarm member.

Near the end of mission operations, the swarm was maneuvered into a passive safety ellipse, and in this formation, the StarFOX team was able to achieve a groundbreaking milestone, demonstrating the ability to autonomously estimate swarm orbits. using only inter-satellite measurements from spacecraft star trackers.

The ability to plan and execute maneuvers with minimal human intervention is an important part of developing larger satellite swarms. Manage the trajectories and maneuvers of hundreds or thousands of spacecraft autonomously saves time and reduces complexity.

The ROMEO (Reconfiguration and Onboard Orbit Maintenance Experiments) system tests the planning and execution of onboard maneuvers by estimating the orbit of the spacecraft and planning a maneuver to a new desired orbit.

The experimental team has successfully demonstrated the system’s ability to determine and plan an orbit change and is working to refine the system to reduce propellant usage and demonstrate maneuver execution. The team will continue to adapt and develop the system during the extension of Starling’s mission.


Now that the primary objectives of the Starling mission are complete, the team will embark on an extension of the mission known as Starling 1.5, testing space traffic coordination in partnership with SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, which also has autonomous maneuvering capabilities. The project will explore how constellations operated by different users can share information through a ground hub to avoid potential collisions.

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