NASA Small Satellites to Demonstrate Swarm Communications and Autonomy


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NASA’s two Nodes small satellites hitched a ride to the International Space Station on the fourth Orbital ATK cargo mission, which launched on Dec. 6. Once aboard the station, the satellites will settle in for a two-to-three month stay until deployed into low-Earth orbit in early 2016. 

The Nodes mission, which consists of two CubeSats weighing just 4.5 pounds each and measuring 4 inches by 4 inches by 6.5 inches, will test new network capabilities for operating swarms of spacecraft in the future. 

“The purpose of the Nodes demonstration is to test out the potential for using multiple, small, low-cost satellites to perform complex science missions,” said Andrew Petro, program executive for the Small Spacecraft Technology Program (SSTP) in the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

A first for small satellites, Nodes will demonstrate the ability to receive and distribute commands in space from the ground in addition to periodically exchanging scientific data from their onboard radiation instruments. The satellites will be able to configure their data network autonomously by determining which spacecraft is best suited to communicate with the ground each day of the mission.

“The technologies demonstrated during this mission are important, as they will show that a network of satellites can be controlled without communicating to each satellite directly,” said Roger Hunter, program manager for SSTP at NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California. “Nodes will demonstrate inter-satellite communications and autonomous command and control; this will help enable future constellation command and control capabilities.”

Upon deployment from the station, the Energetic Particle Integrating Space Environment Monitor (EPISEM) radiation sensor aboard each Nodes satellite will collect data on the charged particle environment at an altitude of about 250 miles above Earth. The EPISEM instruments were provided under contract by Montana State University. The Nodes satellites will demonstrate their networking capabilities through communication of this data with each other and the ground. In another SSTP-university partnership, Santa Clara University will conduct ground operations.

The mission is scheduled to last for two weeks, though the CubeSats will remain in orbit for several more months before their orbit decays, they re-enter and burn up in the atmosphere.

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