Integrated Control Algorithm for Autonomous Spacecraft Formation Flying
Associate Professor Gianmarco Radice from SIT Engineering cluster recently received an MOE Academic Research Fund (ARF) Tier 2 grant to develop CubeSat onboard autonomy to reduce the manual labour and manpower requirements that go into the orbital maintenance of large satellite formations.
When you hear the word ‘satellite’, you might immediately think of large, highly sophisticated platforms orbiting Earth. However, miniaturised satellites or CubeSats are a fast-growing segment of the space industry.
What are CubeSats?
CubeSats are small satellites that can weigh anything from 1 kg to 35 kg. These small spacecraft, which can capture, and transmit data or images, have wide-ranging applications in many industries – from space research to land observations, from weather monitoring to IoT connectivity. CubeSats allow constellations to be deployed in a cost-effective manner, allowing the development of numerous applications that were once cost inhibitive.
A CubeSat constellation is made up of a group of orbiting CubeSats forming an interconnected network in low Earth orbit. The number of CubeSats in a network can range from just a few to many hundreds. Aside from providing better coverage and uninterrupted data exchange, CubeSat constellations help ensure that missions can continue, even when one CubeSat malfunctions. However, keeping each satellite in place is often a manpower-intensive activity.
Developing CubeSat Onboard Autonomy
A/Prof Radice’s research focuses on developing CubeSat onboard autonomy, which essentially reduces the manual labour and manpower requirements that go into the orbital maintenance of large satellite formations. He will partner with small satellite company NuSpace, which is founded by former researchers from National University of Singapore, to market the technology for commercial use.
“With its relatively lower cost, small satellites have given rise to the rapid deployment of satellite constellations. For a constellation to function properly, each satellite needs to be within its precise location. And this is often a manpower intense activity to keep each satellite in place,” said Mr Ng Zhen Ning, Chief Executive Officer of NuSpace.
Developing Control Algorithms
Part of A/Prof Radice’s research will involve embedding control algorithms with integrated propulsions within each CubeSat of the formation. The first stage of the research is expected to take one and a half years, and will involve the development and testing of the control algorithms, which will be validated computationally. This will be followed by hardware-in-the-loop testing and embedding into a CubeSat, with a view to space-qualifying the system should a suitable launch opportunity present itself.
Mr Ng said, “NuSpace is excited to be working with SIT and A/Prof Radice to bring to market next-generation constellation management solutions that are effective force multipliers, reducing load on manpower.”