NASA’s Starling CubeSats Succeed in Early Space Navigation Test

NASA’s Starling mission accomplished a significant objective for the StarFOX (Starling Formation-Flying Optical Experiment) experiment, a test of autonomous navigation, co-location, and situational awareness in space.

Using downlinked images from onboard “star tracker” sensors, the team used ground-based software to demonstrate StarFOX’s ability to autonomously differentiate the background field of stars and other orbiting spacecraft from fellow members of the Starling swarm.

The spacecraft captured one photo every minute, and despite inconsistencies in illumination and minimal relative motion, the software was able to use the angular positions of the other Starling satellites within those images to estimate their orbits accurately with respect to GPS measurements captured during the test.

The next step is to demonstrate this software in orbit with similar results, autonomously correcting orbit predictions over time as each photo provides more data about the trajectory of spacecraft in the swarm.

StarFOX is being led by the Stanford University’s Space Rendezvous Laboratory.

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 Starling is funded by NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and within the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington.

 

NASA’s Starling CubeSats Begin Swarm Experiment Operations

NASA’s four Starling spacecraft, Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde, have successfully completed commissioning and are now in swarm experiment configuration. The spacecraft have successfully completed several mission activities working to advance satellite swarm technologies.

Payload commissioning was delayed due to several anomalies the team needed to investigate, including a larger volume of GPS satellite data than expected in the spacecraft to payload interface. Software updates have resolved most of these issues and the CubeSats are beginning their planned work.

Starling’s mission includes four main capabilities: network communications between the spacecraft, maintaining relative navigation and understanding each satellite’s position, autonomous swarm reconfiguration and maintenance to ensure the swarm can adjust when moving as a group, and distributed science autonomy to prove the ability to adjust experiment activities on their own.

To stay updated on the Starling mission, follow this blog, and stay connected on social media:

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Starling is funded by NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and within the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington.

NASA’s Starling CubeSats Maneuver into Swarm Configuration

NASA’s Starling spacecraft are getting in formation: the mission team has spent the last two months troubleshooting issues and commissioning the four spacecraft, nicknamed Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde.

Pinky, Inky, and Clyde have successfully completed their propulsion system commissioning and have executed maneuvers to get into their swarm operations configuration, maintaining a range between 50-200 km apart. The three have also successfully demonstrated two-way communications with their crosslink radios in this closer proximity.

After launch, ground operators noticed a propulsion system leak on Blinky which caused the spacecraft to enter a slightly lower orbit. The issue was resolved, but it resulted in the spacecraft moving far in front of the others. To correct this, the other three spacecraft performed maneuvers to catch up to Blinky and the swarm is now reunited. The Starling team continues to test Blinky’s propulsion system while the spacecraft is in swarm position.

Testing and commissioning the spacecraft is an important step in preparing for swarm experiment operations, as well as understanding what challenges future spacecraft swarms might experience. The next mission phase will be focused on development and testing of key swarm technologies.

To stay updated on the Starling mission, follow this blog, and stay connected on social media:

Twitter: @NASAAmes@NASA
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Starling is funded by NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and within the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington.

Communications Achieved for NASA’s Four Starling CubeSats

Mission managers have established command communications with all four of NASA’s Starling CubeSats! The spacecraft are progressing through payload and propulsion tests, the final stage of a pre-operations checklist called commissioning.

The Starling spacecraft – which project team members nicknamed Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde – are part of an ambitious test to develop self-coordinating robotic swarms for space research and exploration.

Progress so far has been as expected for three of the four spacecraft – Pinky, Inky, and Clyde. An initial communication issue with Blinky was addressed by updating estimates of its orbital position and instructing the satellite to better align its antennas with ground station receivers. Operators have achieved operational two-way communications with all Starling units and are still investigating the root cause of the issue.

In addition, data analysis of Blinky’s onboard attitude control system, which manages the spacecraft’s orientation, showed that it was having to work to counteract a disturbance. Initial troubleshooting suggested this was likely connected to a propulsion system leak, which was subsequently remediated. Operators are working to better understand the issue and how it might impact the mission.

After this final stage of commissioning, the Starling spacecraft will begin a procedure called a “drift arrest maneuver,” adjusting the orbital positions of each craft to bring them into proper alignment to begin testing swarm activities.

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NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley leads the Starling project. NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program, based at Ames and within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), funds and manages the Starling mission. Blue Canyon Technologies designed and manufactured the spacecraft buses and is providing mission operations support. Rocket Lab USA, Inc. provides launch and integration services. Partners supporting Starling’s payload experiments include Stanford University’s Space Rendezvous Lab in Stanford, California, Emergent Space Technologies of Laurel, Maryland, CesiumAstro of Austin, Texas, L3Harris Technologies, Inc., of Melbourne, Florida, and NASA Ames – with funding support by NASA’s Game Changing Development program within STMD.

NASA’s Starling Commissioning Begins, Team Works to Bolster Comms

Each of NASA’s four Starling spacecraft stabilized themselves, deployed solar panels, and made initial contact shortly after their July 17 launch. Starling operators report nominal health for all the CubeSats.

The spacecraft are undergoing a series of preparation and testing activities, called commissioning, ahead of their mission to demonstrate autonomous communications, positioning, maneuvering, and decision-making capabilities. Starling’s commissioning phase includes three stages: spacecraft bus commissioning, payload commissioning, and propulsion system commissioning.

Three of Starling’s four CubeSats have completed spacecraft bus commissioning ahead of schedule. As of July 21, the mission team continues working to establish robust two-way communications with the fourth spacecraft so that it can join its fellow CubeSats in the next stage of commissioning. 

Follow Starling updates here and on the NASA Ames homepage, and stay connected with the mission on social media.

Twitter: @NASAAmes@NASA
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Instagram: @NASAAmes, @NASA

Starling is funded by NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and within the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington.

Starling CubeSats Have Deployed

NASA’s four Starling CubeSats are confirmed to have deployed from the Rocket Lab’s Electron kick stage. The spacecraft, which are designed to work together as a “swarm,” have reached low Earth orbit to begin their mission to test technologies for autonomous positioning, networking, maneuvering, and decision-making.

Now, the Starling swarm will power up and attempt initial contact with the ground; a process that may occur overnight or in the next several days.

For updates, follow us on social media:  

Twitter: @NASAAmes@NASA
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Instagram: @NASAAmes, @NASA

Starling is funded by NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and within the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington.

Starling: We Have Liftoff!

NASA’s Starling mission, has lifted off from the launch pad aboard Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket. The four CubeSats are on their way to low Earth orbit to test new autonomous spacecraft swarm technologies.

Rocket Lab is providing a live launch broadcast, available on the company’s website.

Connect with us on social media for ongoing launch updates:

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Starling is funded by NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program based at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and within the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington.

It’s Launch Day for NASA’s Starling Mission!

Welcome to launch day for NASA’s Starling CubeSat mission! A team of four satellites wait atop a Rocket Lab Electron rocket for liftoff from Launch Complex 1 in Māhia, New Zealand. This launch, named Baby Come Back, will send Starling’s cereal box-sized satellites, called CubeSats, to low Earth orbit, where they will test new autonomous spacecraft swarm technologies.

A two-hour launch window opens at 7:30 p.m. EDT (11:30 a.m. Tuesday, July 18, New Zealand Standard Time). Rocket Lab is providing a live launch broadcast, available on the company’s website approximately 20 minutes before launch.

Today’s launch aims to deploy the four Starling CubeSats more than 300 miles above Earth. Following commissioning, the spacecraft will demonstrate maneuver planning, communications networking, relative navigation, and autonomous coordinated science measurements, all with minimal intervention from operators on the ground.

This ambitious test is an important step in advancing self-coordinating robotic swarms for future science and exploration missions to the Moon, Mars, and deep space.  Projects like the upcoming HelioSwarm mission, which will launch nine spacecraft to study the Sun like never before, will benefit from lessons learned from Starling.

Here’s a look at some of today’s upcoming milestones. All times are approximate:

  • -00:02:00 Launch autosequence begins
  • -00:00:02 Rutherford engines ignite
  • 00:00:00 Lift-off
  • 00:01:00 Vehicle Supersonic
  • 00:01:11 Max-Q
  • +00:02:24 Main Engine Cut Off (MECO) on Electron’s first stage
  • +00:02:27 Stage 1 separates from Stage 2
  • +00:02:31 Electron’s Stage 2 Rutherford engine ignites
  • +00:03:03 Fairing separation
  • +00:04:07 Stage 1 apogee
  • +00:07:23 Stage 1 drogue parachute deployment
  • +00:07:38 Stage 1 is subsonic
  • +00:08:13 Stage 1 main parachute deployment
  • +00:08:59 Second Engine Cut Off (SECO) on Stage 2
  • +00:09:09 Stage 2 separation from Kick Stage
  • +00:15:15- +00:17:43- Splashdown predicted to occur between
  • +00:46:27 Kick Stage Curie engine ignition (1)
  • +00:48:39 Curie engine Cut Off (1)
  • +00:49:14 NASA Starling 1 Deploys
  • +00:49:44 NASA Starling 2 Deploys
  • +00:50:14 NASA Starling 3 Deploys
  • +00:50:44 NASA Starling 4 Deploys

Follow launch updates on this blog and stay connected with the mission on social media:

Twitter: @NASAAmes@NASA@RocketLab
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Ames leads the Starling project. NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology program, based at Ames and within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), funds and manages the Starling mission. Blue Canyon Technologies designed and manufactured the spacecraft buses and is providing mission operations support. Rocket Lab USA, Inc. provides launch and integration services. Partners supporting Starling’s payload experiments include Stanford University’s Space Rendezvous Lab in Stanford, California, Emergent Space Technologies of Laurel, Maryland, CesiumAstro of Austin, Texas, L3Harris Technologies, Inc., of Melbourne, Florida, and Ames – with funding support by NASA’s Game Changing Development program within STMD.

NASA Awards SpaceX Launch Services Task Order for CubeSat Mission

NASA logo

NASA has awarded Space Exploration Technologies Corp. of Hawthorne, California, one task order to launch two CubeSat Launch Initiative missions as part of the agency’s Venture-class Acquisition of Dedicated and Rideshare (VADR) launch services contract.

The CubeSats are targeted to launch no earlier than 2025 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. NASA will specify payloads closer to launch.

Building on NASA’s previous procurement efforts to foster development of a growing U.S. commercial launch market, VADR provides Federal Aviation Administration-licensed commercial launch services for payloads that can tolerate higher risk. By using a lower level of mission assurance, and commercial best practices for launching rockets, these highly flexible contracts help broaden access to space through lower launch costs.

SpaceX is one of 13 companies NASA selected for VADR contracts in 2022. NASA’s Launch Services Program, based at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, manages the VADR contracts.

Seeking Signal Acquisition

The final two TROPICS CubeSats successfully deployed from a Rocket Lab Electron rocket after launch. The rocket named Coming To A Storm Near You lifted off at at 11:46 p.m. EDT Thursday, May 25, (3:46 p.m. NZST Friday, May 26th).

The team is now working to seek signal acquisition from this pair of TROPICS CubeSats. NASA will continue to assess data from periodic pass opportunities over ground stations located across the globe. It is not unexpected for CubeSats to take some time to establish communications. We will provide confirmation when signal is acquired.

While the launches are complete, the scientific work on orbit for the constellation is just beginning. So, continue to follow along for blog updates and stay connected with the mission on social media. This concludes our coverage of this launch.

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