NASA cubesats to test in-orbit networking and data-sharing

NASA cubesats to test in-orbit networking and data-sharing

With the recent launch of a pair of cubesats, NASA hopes to develop capabilities for operating much larger swarms of networked spacecraft. 

The pair of 4.5-pound satellites are part of  the Nodes mission, which will test in-orbit network capabilities, including the ability to receive and distribute commands in space from the ground and exchange scientific data from onboard radiation instruments.  These satellites are also designed to configure data networks autonomously by determining what spacecraft can best communicate with the ground at any given point in the mission. 

The tiny satellites were sent to the International Space Station aboard the fourth Orbital ATK cargo mission. Nodes builds on the legacy of the Phonesat series of small satellites, NASA said, by using commercially developed Android smartphone technology augmented with additional custom software that enables the satellites to perform spacecraft functions.

“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 Small Spacecraft Technology Program at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “Nodes will demonstrate intersatellite communications and autonomous command and control; this will help enable future constellation command and control capabilities.”

A sensor built into the Node satellites will collect data on the charged particle environment 250 miles above the Earth, NASA said. The cubesats will then share these datasets with each other and with researchers on Earth, demonstrating their networking capabilities in the process.

This mission will only last two weeks, although the small satellites will continue to orbit for several months until they burn up as they reenter the atmosphere. 

These low-cost, networked cubesats will open “new horizons in astronomy, Earth observation and solar physics,” NASA said.  Applications will include multisatellite science missions, the formation of synthetic aperture radars for Earth sensing systems and large aperture observatories for next-generation telescopes.  Additionally, they will be able to collect measurements on the Earth’s magnetosphere, gravity field and interactions with the sun.

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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