Saturday, January 30, 2016

Enabling Technology for Low-cost Asteroid Missions and Constellations

Image Courtesy of UTIAS Space Flight Laboratory. CanX-4 and CanX-5 are a pair of identical nanosatellites built by the Space Flight Laboratory, and launched in June 2014.

The world’s first demonstration of autonomous spacecraft maneuvering was recently completed by Silicon Valley-based Deep Space Industries (DSI) and the Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) of Toronto, Canada. Using their highly-successful CanX-4 and CanX-5 pair of nanosatellites, SFL operators executed a DSI-defined experiment on-orbit, in which the world’s first spacecraft-to-spacecraft orbit maneuver was commanded by one satellite and executed by the other.

In this experiment, one of the two spacecraft (CanX-4) autonomously programmed the other (CanX-5) to perform an orbit change using its on-board propulsion system, over a shared S-band Inter-Satellite Link (ISL) radio. CanX-5 subsequently executed the maneuver, raising its orbit, as confirmed by operators at SFL’s Mission Control Center (MCC) in Toronto and data from the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

To the best of each organization’s knowledge, this is the first time in history that one satellite has autonomously commanded another to execute propulsive maneuvers, with no operator in the loop.

“This experiment was a key demonstration of a critical capability for multi-spacecraft asteroid missions, as well as constellations of spacecraft in Earth orbit,” said Grant Bonin, DSI’s Chief Engineer. “It was also a first step in demonstrating ship-to-shore command relay in-space, which could potentially reduce the difficulty of communicating with very small spacecraft at long range.”

“The experiment was an important risk reduction exercise for DSI, which intends to use small spacecraft for initial asteroid prospecting missions in the next five years,” Bonin continued. “The ability to relay commands from spacecraft to spacecraft, and perform in-space maneuvers autonomously, without operator intervention, is a critical capability that has major implications for mission-level redundancy—not just for asteroid missions, but also for low-cost Earth orbit constellations. This also shows that, if necessary, we can take the operator entirely out of the loop during a mission, which can translate into significant savings.”

Deep Space Industries’ partner, the Space Flight Laboratory at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS), challenges the current state-of-the-art in space technology performance while achieving remarkably low cost without sacrificing quality or introducing risk. In an age where significant advances have been made in data processing and information technology, SFL strives to leverage the latest advances in commercial technologies to provide performance advantage in space for tomorrow’s space-based data users. The organizations’ high rate of success and distinguished legacy of being on the forefront of space technology make the team a great fit for partnering with Deep Space Industries.

“Teaming with a satellite provider like SFL is a big win for us,” said DSI CEO Daniel Faber. “DSI’s philosophy is to partner with other organizations whenever it makes sense, in a way that maximizes complementary capabilities. Having a partner like SFL allows us to tap into almost 20 years of heritage, experience, and capabilities, while giving DSI the capacity to focus on key elements of its own roadmap, by leveraging already well-honed skill sets that exist elsewhere.”

“We are very pleased to have contributed to DSI’s objectives through the tasking of CanX-4 and CanX-5. SFL welcomes the opportunity to partner with DSI, and we see great potential in such collaboration,” noted Dr. Robert Zee, Director of SFL. “For SFL, it is an opportunity to apply our heritage and experience in an emerging application area, one that can potentially revolutionize humanity’s use of deep space. SFL recognizes the pioneering work of DSI and their talented team, and looks forward to future projects with DSI.”

Bonin concluded: “Technologies such as launch-safe high-performance propulsion systems, long-range, high-data-rate communications, and autonomous spacecraft relative navigation are at the core of DSI’s current technology development efforts. By combining our enabling technologies with the excellent satellite platforms being offered by SFL, DSI can provide innovative, reliable and robust systems for a wide range of customers and mission types, both in Low Earth Orbit and beyond.”

This work is the first project in what both organizations expect to be a long-term strategic relationship to bring cutting-edge, low-cost space technologies and missions to market, while also enabling low-cost asteroid missions.

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