NASA Funds R&D Projects to Improve Operations of Satellite Swarms

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA is funding a trio of research and development (R&D) projects by Nanoracks, Teltrium Solutions and Emergent Space Technologies aimed at enabling swarms of small satellites to better operate in Earth orbit and to explore other worlds.

The companies each received Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II awards worth $750,000 to continue work on the their technologies. They each received smaller awards under the first phase of of the program.

Nanoracks, which is based in Houston, is focused on reusing spent rocket stages known as Outposts to help improve communications with satellite swarms exploring the moon and other planets.

“Distributed small space vehicles, cooperating in a dynamic environment, are critical for the success of planetary exploration within the next decade. However, the effectiveness of these distributed vehicle swarms will be limited by two factors – the size of the individual vehicles (which will determine onboard data relay capabilities) and their distance from the command and communications centers on Earth,” Nanoracks said in its proposal summary.

“The existence of flexible, low-cost Outposts – Nanoracks’ long-duration platforms created from repurposed upper stages – in the cislunar and translunar environments can increase the resiliency and effectiveness of exploratory mission designs by providing a localized area network capacity for communication, pointing, navigation, and timing (PNT), and data relay back to Earth,” the proposal added.

Emergent Space Technologies, which is based in Laurel, Md., is developing a software system called Adjutant that uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to allow satellite swarms to plan activities in a more autonomous manner, thus reducing the need for ground-based commands.

“Adjutant is directly relevant to applications identified in our subtopic, such as missions operating ‘autonomously and cooperatively at cislunar or more remote destinations’ by reducing and eventually eliminating the need for ‘ground-based semiautonomous scheduling’. Reducing the need for ground-based operations enables more efficient operation of near-Earth constellations, and can be extended to enable persistent remote operations in Cislunar or more remote environments,” the proposal summary said.

Teltrium Solutions is working on developing a system that would allow constellations of small satellites that have limited power and data rate transmission capabilities to better communicate with Earth.

“The traditional approach to this arraying concept is to pre-condition each node signal in phase and time prior to transmission such that all signals arrive at the receiver coherently. This phase adjustment is very burdensome and problematic for the space node. We refer to this arraying approach as spaced-based arraying’,” the proposal summary said.

“Our innovation performs this signal ‘arraying’ operation in a way that effectively eliminates all the node synchronization and coordination complexities noted above by implementing ground-based arraying. We denote our innovative arraying technology as “Swarm Array Coherent Combining” (SACC). SACC uses ground terminal signal processing to extract node phasing and timing for coherent combining allowing each node signal to be ‘uncoupled’ from each other and have significantly relaxed time and phase requirements,” the document added.

Project summaries follow.

Using Autonomous Outposts as Data Relays to Support Distributed Spacecraft
Subtopic: Communications and Navigation for Distributed Small Spacecraft Beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO)

SBIR Phase II Award: up to $750,000

NanoRacks, LLC
Houston, Texas

Principal Investigator: Michael Lewis

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 3
End: 4

Duration: 24 Months

Technical Abstract

Distributed small space vehicles, cooperating in a dynamic environment, are critical for the success of planetary exploration within the next decade. However, the effectiveness of these distributed vehicle swarms will be limited by two factors – the size of the individual vehicles (which will determine onboard data relay capabilities) and their distance from the command and communications centers on Earth.

The existence of flexible, low-cost Outposts – Nanoracks’ long-duration platforms created from repurposed upper stages – in the cislunar and translunar environments can increase the resiliency and effectiveness of exploratory mission designs by providing a localized area network capacity for communication, pointing, navigation, and timing (PNT), and data relay back to Earth.

In this proposed Phase II study, Nanoracks expects to test an integrated hardware and software system to enable advanced data relay capabilities. Nanoracks plans to apply for a following Phase II-E extension after 12 months of the Phase II project, leading to an eventual flight demonstration of the data relay. Nanoracks will leverage the technology reviews and feasibility studies resulting from Phase I activities to achieve the following deliverables: Subsystem Requirements Refinement, Technology Selections, Technological Partnerships Plan, Prototype Development Plan, Service Provision and Management Services, Autonomous Software Development, Hardware Prototype Development, Hardware-in-the-loop Testing, and Nanoracks’ Commercialization Strategy.

Potential NASA Applications

This Phase II study is designed to develop and test specific Outpost capabilities which can support localized data services for distributed space vehicles to support NASA’s exploration goals. An Outpost with data relay and computational offloading capabilities can support both orbital and surface exploration missions from a variety of orbits. Outposts also provide autonomous OSAM capabilities to vehicles, including refueling, repair, component storage, cargo exchange, and localized PNT/command/data/communication relays.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

Nanoracks’ MEK is designed to turn Outposts into key platforms for the future orbital ecosystem. In addition to data relay and distributed network nodes, Outposts can provide payload hosting services, refueling, repair, and other robotically enabled services, and host OSAM activities. Nanoracks hopes to perform integration/test of such systems within this study.

Plan Generation for Autonomous Small Spacecraft Swarms
Subtopic: Artificial Intelligence (AI)/Machine Learning (ML) for Small Spacecraft Swarm Trajectory Control

SBIR Phase II Award: up to $750,000

Emergent Space Technologies, LLC
Laurel, MD

Principal Investigator: Dr. Tim Woodbury

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 3
End: 6

Duration: 24 Months

Technical Abstract

Spacecraft operators are increasingly exploring distributed mission concepts and moving to more remote regimes, presenting new technical challenges that can be addressed by onboard autonomy capabilities. Onboard planning enables new tasks to be assimilated independently of ground commands, enhancing near-Earth operations and enabling remote operations. Modern sensor algorithms can run locally on spacecraft to detect potential tasks, such as data collection opportunities for civil science missions, or launch events for defense missions. Planning capabilities are needed to prioritize and schedule tasks with overlapping windows of opportunity without the need for human intervention.

Our proposed innovation, which we call Adjutant, is flight software (FSW) for planning that leverages state of the art optimization methods for scalability and relevance to current operations, an open systems approach to plan management from multiple sources, and code generation to simplify mission integration and reduce development time for operators. Adjutant is directly relevant to applications identified in our subtopic, such as missions operating “autonomously and cooperatively at cislunar or more remote destinations” by reducing and eventually eliminating the need for “ground-based semiautonomous scheduling”. Reducing the need for ground-based operations enables more efficient operation of near-Earth constellations, and can be extended to enable persistent remote operations in Cislunar or more remote environments.

Our proposed Phase II extension will develop FSW prototypes of planning, goal monitoring, and plan management applications. In conjunction with our existing FSW applications, Adjutant will enable onboard planning and execution of complex missions, including activities such as station keeping, navigation, and fault recovery. Onboard planning will support missions including Earth science such as Landsat Next, heliophysics such as GDC, and exploration such as LunaNet.

Potential NASA Applications

  • Exploration Missions​
  • LunaNet​
  • Venus Flagship Mission​
  • Lunar Gateway​
  • Heliophysics​
  • Geospace Dynamics Constellation​
  • HelioSwarm​
  • Solar-Terrestrial Observer for the Response of the Magnetosphere​
  • Earth Observation Missions​
  • Landsat Next​
  • FireSat

Potential Non-NASA Applications

  • Space Development Agency (SDA) National Defense Space Architecture Tracking Layer & Transport Layer​
  • Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL)​
  • Cislunar Highway Patrol System (CHPS): remote operations in Cislunar space​
  • Commercial: Enable dynamic replanning in between contact with ground stations​
  • Earth-observing constellation operators, e.g.:​ Planet, Capella​, Hawkeye 360

Swarm Array Coherent Combining (SACC)
Subtopic: Communications and Navigation for Distributed Small Spacecraft
Beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO)

SBIR Phase II Award: up to $750,000

Teltrium Solutions, LLC
Greenbelt, MD

Principal Investigator: Ted Benjamin

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL):
Begin: 4
End: 6

Duration: 24 Months

Technical Abstract

Smallsats offer significant potential in allowing for relatively inexpensive, rapid deployment and robust space operations, communications, science, etc. However, these smallsats are inherently power-limited and thus are correspondingly limited in their data rate capabilities. Accordingly, focus has been on constructing a swarm of these smallsats wherein each smallsat (or ‘node’) would transmit its individual signal that is then ‘arrayed’ together to form a combined signal that has more power.

The traditional approach to this arraying concept is to pre-condition each node signal in phase and time prior to transmission such that all signals arrive at the receiver coherently. This phase adjustment is very burdensome and problematic for the space node. We refer to this arraying approach as spaced-based arraying’.

Our innovation performs this signal ‘arraying’ operation in a way that effectively eliminates all the node synchronization and coordination complexities noted above by implementing ground-based Arraying. We denote our innovative arraying technology as “Swarm Array Coherent Combining” (SACC). SACC uses ground terminal signal processing to extract node phasing and timing for coherent combining allowing each node signal to be ‘uncoupled’ from each other and have significantly relaxed time and phase requirements.

Also, noteworthy is that SACC technology provides the basis for a novel satellite relay concept that offers all the benefits of a large Phased Array in space by merely using a swarm of simple uncoupled smallsat transponder nodes that perform as elements of the array. Our SACC ground technology extracts all the phase information of these noise-dominated signals to achieve coherent node arraying. These space nodes do not need precise intra-swarm frequency and time coordination. Another key feature is that there is no need to calibrate any of the communication links even crosslinks. We refer to this novel relay system as the SACC SmallSat Relay System (SSRS).

Potential NASA Applications

As NASA continues to explore our solar system, there is always a need for communications. With the vast emergence of smallsats both to do science and to support communications, the SACC SSRS represents a resilient, flexible and efficient way to leverage these smallsats to provide these NASA communications needs. In particular, because the SSRS imposes negligible requirements both on the swarm and its constituent transponder nodes, it can be easily designed and operationalized to support NASA communications over all space regimes.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

There is an ever-growing number of commercial smallsat constellations being deployed to support connectivity to the INTERNET. There are always issues related to achievable data rates and visibility to ground stations. Our SSRS offers the robust flexibility to create swarms of any size to address data rates. The SSRS also accommodates crosslinks between swarms with no impact on our SACC processing.