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Flight Algorithms for Disaggregated Space Architectures

Final Report Summary - FADER (Flight Algorithms for Disaggregated Space Architectures)

Flight Algorithms for Disaggregated Space Architectures (FADER) aims to revolutionize the traditional methods for building and launching satellites. The main idea is to distribute the traditional monolithic satellite among free-flying, wirelessly-connected modules that would form a virtual satellite in space. This method promises to make space much more accessible and affordable, and open the realm of space missions to new participants worldwide. However, there are some major challenges associated with this idea: How to keep a cluster of modules in space in proximity for many years? How to control the relative distances, avoid collisions, and efficiently exchange information among modules? How to process information and determine which of the modules should carry a means for propulsion? How to minimize the use of propellant so as to save mass? FADER has these questions, and has generated knowledge that would pave the way for the realization of disaggregated satellites. Most notably, algorithms for keeping a cluster of modules in space while utilizing miniscule amounts of propellant have been developed, and a new understanding of the relative dynamics of these modules in space has been gained. In particular, FADER has shown that there are unique orbits on which the modules should be placed, so as to guarantee long-term operation in space. Moreover, it has been shown that natural forces, such as the atmospheric drag, can be used to control distances among modules for long-term missions, by changing their rotational state. This suggests that some modules would not have to use propulsion systems at all. This way, a virtual satellite can be created by forming a network of inter-communicating, self-controlling satellite modules. As part of the experimental effort, a unique experimental facility has been established, called the Distributed Space Systems Lab, in which models of small satellites are freely floating on an air table. By using computing devices capable of real-time processing and measurement, it has been demonstrated that disaggregation of satellites is possible in terms of resource sharing enabled through inter-module communication. Based on the results obtained during the activity in FADER, a new satellite mission has been established to examine some of the cluster flight algorithms in space. This mission, called Satellite Autonomous Mission for Swarming and Geolocating with Nanosatellites (SAMSON), will be the first mission ever to fly three autonomous propelled nanosatellites demonstrating cluster flight in space.