Spaceflight formation flying test bed takes off

European Space Agency lab tries out satellite formation flying

ESA Proba
Getting complicated systems onboard a single spacecraft  to operate as one integrated unit can be hard enough but some space agencies are trying to address the challenges of  getting multiple spacecraft to fly in formation and operate together as one unit.

Such challenges are exactly what a new European Space Agency lab in the Netherlands is set to address.  According to the ESA, it is hard to overstate the difficulty space agency's face in satellite formation flying where you have separate expensive pieces of hardware, each one zipping through space at several kilometers per second, that may have to maneuver to within meters of each other to achieve their goals.

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The positions of the satellites must be maintained precisely as they move: lose control of one part of the formation, even momentarily, and the satellites risk destruction. And orbital dynamics dictate the satellites' orbits will tend to cross as they circle Earth, another worrying factor for their controllers, the ESA stated.   

The test bed addresses crucial operational factors for formation flying, including mission and vehicle management, guidance navigation, dealing with faults and communicating between satellites, the ESA stated.

The lab's Formation Flying Test Bed will offer a suite of software developed by Belgium's Spacebel running across networked computers to simulate all aspects of a formation-flying mission.  Specifically Formation Flying Test Bed makes use of the High Level Architecture (HLA) standard, and the Run Time Infrastructure to distribute software across and communicate between multiple computers.

The ESA says the new facility is similar to existing avionics test benches, except it can emulate running multiple instances--usually two to six--of spacecraft software at once.

The ESA said it tried out the test bed for its upcoming, dual satellite Proba-3 mission which primarily will demonstrate the technologies required for formation flying of multiple spacecraft. An instrument to observe the solar corona will fly along on the mission, the ESA stated. Spacebel also developed Proba-3's flight software.

Formation flying isn't a new concept. NASA for example has a number of satellites that fly in formation.  But he idea of flying satellites in distributed piece parts is a more advanced concept.  For example, The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) is developing what it calls Future, Fast, Flexible, Fractionated, Free-Flying Spacecraft or System F6 satellites.   The System F6 is intended deploy what DARPA calls  "fractionated modules" of current all-in-one satellites. For example, each module would support a unique capability, such as command and control, data handling, guidance and navigation, payload. Modules could replicate the functions of other modules as well. Such modules can be physically connected once in orbit or remain nearby to each other in a loose formation, or cluster, harnessed together as a virtual satellite, DARPA stated.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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