Goodbye ground control: Nanosatellites achieve first autonomous orbital maneuver

CanX-4 and CanX-5 are a pair of identical nanosatellites built by the Space Flight Laboratory and launched in June 2014(Credit: DSI/FSL)

One of the advantages of bread loaf-sized nanosatellites is their potential to act as a swarm that can equal the power of a single larger satellite, but with more flexibility and at lower cost. Deep Space Industries (DSI) has taken a major step in that direction in a successful test involving two autonomous Canadian satellites, which carried out the first orbital maneuver without human supervision.

Satellite formation flying isn't new. In fact, the first example was on December 15, 1965, when Gemini VI and VII rendezvoused in low Earth orbit. However, in the 50 years since then, such formation and docking maneuvers have either been carried out by an onboard pilot or under direct ground control. This has worked out well so far, but if large swarms of nanosatellites are going to be practical, especially in deep space asteroid mining operations, they need to be able to operate autonomously.

The recent test involved two Canadian Advanced Nanospace eXperiment (CanX) nanosatellites, CanX-4 and CanX-5. Built by the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies and Space Flight Laboratory and launched in June 2014, they are operated in partnership with DSI with the objective of demonstrating formation flying using nanosatellite technology.

DSI claims that the test was the world's first spacecraft-to-spacecraft orbit maneuver commanded by one satellite and executed by the other. In this, CanX-4 autonomously programmed CanX-5 to move itself into a higher orbit without any operators involved beyond the initial programming. According to DSI, the success of the maneuver was confirmed by SFL's Mission Control Center in Toronto and Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

"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," says Grant Bonin, DSI's Chief Engineer. "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."

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