On December 6th this year, Nasa reached an important milestone on a project decades in the making. Two small Node satellites were launched on the fourth Orbital ATK cargo mission. The mission was aboard the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. Their destination: the International Space Station. Their mission: to set the groundwork for future communications technology.
The Nodes mission is part of NASA’s small satellite experiments in orbital space. This launch carried two CubeSats, each of which was 4 inches by 4 inches by 6.5 inches and weighed no more than 4.5 pounds. The two small satellites will begin testing network capabilities for swarms of small satellites to be launched in the near future.
NASA hopes that in the future smaller and cheaper satellites can be launched to work together in space and perform complex scientific missions. The tests will focus on the ability of these small satellites to autonomously configure their data based on inputs sent from Earth. Once aboard, the satellites will have to demonstrate their ability to receive messages that contain vital commands, distribute it along a network of similar satellites and exchange scientific data in the most efficient way possible.
The satellites have been designed to make autonomous decisions regarding the use of the on-board radiation instruments and the selection of satellites to make faster ground communications. The mission is part of NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Platform (SSTP) at the Space Technology Mission Directorate in Washington.
Each and every node has an EPISEM or Energetic Particle Integrating Space Environment Monitor. This is the satellite’s radiation sensor that helps the node collect data on the charged particles that may be whizzing by. The sensors have been taken under contract from Montana State University and Santa Clara University conducts ground operations. The satellites are effectively running their own private network 250 miles off the surface of the Earth.
NASA wants to try and collect the data and distribute it within a swarm of satellites that move independently over the area. The control center doesn’t need to communicate instructions with every single satellite. Instead, the message is sent to the closest and easiest satellite they can track and is then spread through the swarm. All communication with the space center works this way, saving both time and effort.
The mission is crucial for future space communications. It follows the unfortunately unsuccessful launch of eight small satellites last month on the Edison Demonstration of Smallsat Networks (EDSN) mission. The same team that worked on the EDSN mission developed these Nodes satellites. Working at the Ames Research Center, the team has managed to build in many of the same capabilities that were developed for the EDSN mission.
Networked swarms of satellites are widely considered to be game-changers in the field of Earth observation, solar physics and astronomy. They can also serve as apertures for next-generation telescopes that will observe the Earth’s magnetosphere.