NASA’s Starling Mission: Pioneering Swarm Intelligence with CubeSats in Space

by Klaus Müller
NASA updates

NASA’s Starling mission is set to push the boundaries of space technology by testing autonomous swarm navigation capabilities on four CubeSats in low-Earth orbit. Image Credit: Blue Canyon Technologies/NASA

A demonstration of innovative swarm technology is the heart of NASA’s Starling mission. The mission, in partnership with academic institutions and small businesses, aims to drive progress in space exploration and bolster commercial space industry growth by highlighting the potential of autonomous spacecraft swarms.

Four six-unit (6U) CubeSats will showcase an intricate orbital performance as part of the Starling mission, embodying the power of swarm technology in space. Their takeoff from Rocket Lab’s Launch Complex 1 in Mahia, New Zealand is scheduled for no earlier than July 14, via Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket.

Advancements with Autonomous Spacecraft Swarms

Autonomous spacecraft swarms have the potential to transform how NASA conducts exploration and scientific missions. These swarms must operate independently due to long-distance communication delays and possible disruptions. Autonomy guarantees mission continuity even when communication with the spacecraft is temporarily lost. Additionally, it allows the swarm to adjust its behavior to observe unusual or rare phenomena – a feature researchers call “opportunistic science.”

Displaying Swarm Technology: The Starling Mission

The Starling spacecraft will demonstrate their capabilities once they reach an altitude of about 355 miles above Earth, each separated by roughly 40 miles. They will exhibit their ability to fly in formation autonomously, track each other’s relative positions and trajectories, and carry out group activities independent of mission controllers. The spacecraft will also prove their potential to establish and maintain an adaptive inter-spacecraft communication network. In case one spacecraft’s communication node fails, the network will automatically reconfigure to sustain full communication abilities for the rest of the operational spacecraft.

Fostering Collaborations and Partnerships

NASA is collaborating with American academic institutions and small businesses to provide essential technologies and mission operations support for the Starling project. The project includes partners from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, offering early-stage funding and consistent support for innovative technologies that meet NASA’s needs. These alliances are intended to further space exploration capabilities and stimulate job growth through the development of commercial space companies.

Final Preparations Underway

Engineers from NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley and Rocket Lab USA, Inc., of Long Beach, California, have joined forces to prepare Starling’s four spacecraft for launch, integrating them into Rocket Lab CubeSat dispensers. Each spacecraft, about the size of two stacked cereal boxes, were provided by Blue Canyon Technologies of Boulder, Colorado.

NASA Ames is spearheading the Starling project. The Small Spacecraft Technology program, hosted at NASA Ames and part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), oversees and funds the Starling mission. Blue Canyon Technologies took charge of designing and manufacturing the spacecraft buses and is providing mission operations support, while Rocket Lab USA, Inc. is responsible for launch and integration services. Partners like Stanford University’s Space Rendezvous Lab, Emergent Space Technologies, CesiumAstro, L3Harris Technologies, Inc., and NASA Ames, with funding support from NASA’s Game Changing Development program within STMD, are contributing to Starling’s payload experiments.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Swarm Technology in Space

What is the goal of NASA’s Starling mission?

The goal of NASA’s Starling mission is to test and demonstrate swarm technologies in space. This mission highlights the capabilities of autonomous spacecraft swarms. It also aims to advance space exploration and stimulate growth in the commercial space sector.

What are the capabilities that the CubeSats will demonstrate in space?

The CubeSats, as part of the Starling mission, will showcase their ability to autonomously fly together while maintaining track of each other’s relative positions and trajectories. They will also demonstrate their ability to plan and execute group activities independent of mission controllers and to adapt to new information from onboard sensors. In addition, they will create and sustain an inter-spacecraft communications network that automatically adjusts to changing conditions.

How are autonomous spacecraft swarms significant for future space missions?

Autonomous spacecraft swarms could revolutionize how NASA conducts science and exploration missions. Operating at great distances from the Earth, these swarms must function independently due to the time delay in communicating with ground stations and potential communication disruptions. This autonomy ensures mission continuity even when communication with the spacecraft is temporarily disrupted. It also enables spacecraft swarms to change their behavior to observe unexpected or infrequent phenomena, a capability referred to as “opportunistic science.”

Who are the partners involved in the Starling mission?

NASA has collaborated with American academic institutions and small businesses to supply key technologies and support mission operations. Partners include small businesses from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, Stanford University’s Space Rendezvous Lab, Emergent Space Technologies, CesiumAstro, L3Harris Technologies, Inc., and NASA Ames.

What are the final preparations for the Starling mission?

Engineers from NASA’s Ames Research Center and Rocket Lab USA, Inc., have joined forces to integrate the four spacecraft of the Starling mission into Rocket Lab CubeSat dispensers in preparation for launch. The spacecraft, provided by Blue Canyon Technologies, are each roughly the size of two stacked cereal boxes.

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Rachel K. July 12, 2023 - 11:04 am

It’s so cool that they’re testing this in low-Earth orbit. And the collaboration with small businesses and universities, I mean, thats really encouraging!

Steve N. July 12, 2023 - 11:22 am

anyone else impressed with the fact that each of these spacecrafts is only the size of two stacked cereal boxes?? space technology is incredible…

Jen L. July 12, 2023 - 12:39 pm

Fascinating… I’d love to know more about how these CubeSats communicate with each other. How they autonomously adapt to changing conditions – its just mind boggling!!

Tom D. July 12, 2023 - 2:12 pm

this kinda tech is really going to revolutionize space exploration isn’t it? i mean the ability to observe unexpected phenomena, they call it “opportunistic science”. That’s pretty amazing.

Jason B. July 12, 2023 - 5:37 pm

Wow, autonomous spacecraft swarms? That’s like some real sci-fi stuff. But seriously, hats off to NASA for always pushing the boundaries. Can’t wait to see how this mission goes!

Emily B. July 12, 2023 - 9:14 pm

I can’t even keep track of my phone and NASA’s managing a swarm of satellites in space. What a time to be alive! Props to NASA for always innovating.

Ali R. July 12, 2023 - 11:38 pm

man i wish i could watch this launch live. gotta love rocket lab and their Electron rocket. Here’s to a successful mission!


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