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.