Blog – Autonomous Formation Flying Enables Multi-Satellite Applications – Part 1

By Dr. Robert E. Zee

CanX4 and CanX5

Autonomous formation flying enables multiple satellites to work together and, in some cases, effectively perform functions of a larger satellite, or perform missions that cannot be accomplished with a single satellite. This is particularly important in the newspace era when launching a constellation of smaller satellites can offer a significant cost advantage over developing one traditional large satellite. Some remote sensing and geolocation applications become viable when two, three or more satellites are flown in precise orbital configurations. Such multi-satellite applications are typically not financially viable with satellites developed using traditional “big space” approaches.

Autonomous formation flying means the satellites are orbiting in a constellation with their relative positions and trajectories precisely maintained without assistance from ground-based commands. Autonomy refers to the fact that onboard hardware and software allow independent action and enable the satellites to communicate with each other to keep their positioning exact.

One of the uses of formation flight is in geolocation services. This involves three or more satellites receiving radio frequency (RF) signals from transmission sources on the ground and using triangulation to precisely calculate their locations in three dimensions. The accuracy of the location calculation depends on how precisely the separation of the satellites is known and controlled.

HawkEye 360 of Herndon, Va., is the first to develop a commercial business around this application. SFL provided the buses and satellite integration services for its first three Pathfinder microsatellites. As a result of the tremendous success of Pathfinder, we were awarded the contract for development of the company’s commercial (operational) constellation utilizing next-generation satellites.

Another geospatial application enabled by autonomous formation flying is sparse aperture sensing. In this application, a cluster of satellites equipped with small sensors capture data that is then combined to provide an effective larger aperture than the individual satellites in the cluster can independently carry.

In 2014, SFL became the first organization to accomplish precise, autonomous formation flight on two nanosatellites, CanX-4 and CanX-5 (pictured above), with centimeter-level knowledge and sub-meter level control accuracy in low Earth orbit. One major beneficial outcome of this highly successful mission was to present the world with critical space-proven technology now available at low cost from SFL. This formation flying technology enables new business models and commercial exploitation not previously possible due to cost.

Read our next blog to learn more about the “complex choreography” between hardware systems and software algorithms that makes autonomous formation flight a reality. Or you can check out a feature article on this topic published in a geospatial surveying and mapping magazine called xyHt.

LATEST NEWS & BLOGS

GHGSat Reports Smallest Methane Emission Ever Detected from Space with Microsatellite Developed by Space Flight Laboratory (SFL)
Oct 22 2020
Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) Announces Launch of Two Satellites
Oct 08 2020
Space Flight Laboratory Announces Launch of Atmospheric Monitoring and Earth Observation Microsatellites
Sep 04 2020
Blog - Disruptive vs Operational Mission Strategies
Aug 12 2020
Blog - Join SFL at the Virtual SmallSat 2020
Jul 31 2020
Blog - Space Flight Laboratory Announces New Line of Cost-Effective CubeSats to Expand its Current Satellite Offerings
Jul 29 2020
Blog - AISSat-1 Maritime Vessel Tracking Nanosat Celebrates 10th Anniversary
Jul 22 2020
HAWKEYE 360 COMPLETES MILESTONE IN PREPARATION TO LAUNCH SECOND CLUSTER
Jul 17 2020
Blog - SFL Comprehensive Microspace Mission Development Includes Ground Segment
Jul 06 2020
Blog - Autonomous Formation Flying Enables Multi-Satellite Applications – Part 2
Jun 01 2020
Blog - Autonomous Formation Flying Enables Multi-Satellite Applications – Part 1
May 22 2020
Blog - What’s Under Development at SFL? Atmospheric Monitoring Missions
Apr 27 2020
Blog - What’s Under Development at SFL? Ship Tracking and Remote Sensing Missions
Mar 26 2020
Blog - SFL and Kepler Collaboration Featured on SatTV News
Feb 14 2020
Space Flight Laboratory and Kepler Communications Announce Collaboration on Fully Operational Nanosatellite Constellation
Feb 03 2020
Blog - What’s Under Development at SFL? Commercial GHGSat and HE360 Missions
Jan 13 2020
Blog - Attitude Control Crucial for Practical Applications of Small Satellites – Part 2
Dec 16 2019
Blog - Attitude Control Crucial for Practical Applications of Small Satellites – Part 1
Dec 09 2019
Blog - Do Microspace Companies Have a Role in the NewSpace Era?
Nov 15 2019
HawkEye 360 Awards Contract to Build Next-Generation Satellite Constellation to Achieve Rapid Revisit for Global Spectrum Awareness
Sep 18 2019
Space Flight Laboratory to Build HawkEye 360 Next-Gen Microsatellite Cluster for Commercial Radio Frequency Geolocation
Mar 27 2019
Canada Awards Contracts In Support of Arctic Surveillance
Feb 01 2019
Arianespace to Launch Slovenian NEMO-HD Microsatellite
Dec 03 2018
HawkEye 360 Announces Successful Launch of First Three Satellites Built by SFL Under Contract to DSI
Dec 03 2018
A New Star in the Sky
Nov 20 2018
GHGSat selects Arianespace to launch GHGSat-C1 on Vega
Nov 15 2018
UTIAS-SFL Students Win Significant Awards for their Technical Papers
Aug 14 2018
SFL-Led Nanosatellite Team Receives Canadian Alouette Award for Precise Autonomous Formation Flight
May 17 2018
NorSat-3 Ordered by Norwegian Space Centre, Satellite Under Construction at SFL
Jan 10 2018
Norwegian AIS Satellites See Far More Ships
Jan 10 2018
BRITE Reveals Spots on Supergiant Star Drive Spirals in Stellar Wind
Oct 24 2017
CLARA on NorSat-1 Successfully Switched on for the First Time
Aug 25 2017
Norwegian Satellites Launched Successfully and Healthy
Jul 14 2017
GHGSat Unveils Satellite Imagery
May 23 2017
Dubai Space Centre Orders Environmental Monitoring Satellite from SFL
May 16 2017
After Only One Week, CanX-7 Shows Drag Sails are Effective at Deorbiting Satellite
May 11 2017
CanX-7 Successfully Deploys Drag Sails kicking off Deorbiting Demonstration
May 04 2017
GHGSat Announces 1000th Measurement – Two Months Ahead of Schedule
Apr 07 2017
Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) Nanosatellite Validates Aircraft Tracking, Prepares for Deorbit Demo
Mar 30 2017
Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) to Develop Microsatellites for Greenhouse Gas Monitoring
Mar 24 2017
CanX-7 Aircraft Tracking and Deorbiting Demo Satellite Launched, Contacted, and Healthy
Sep 26 2016
GHGSat-D (CLAIRE) Bus Commissioning Ahead of Schedule
Jun 27 2016
M3MSat Launched and Successfully Contacted
Jun 22 2016
GHGSat-D (CLAIRE) Launches Successfully and First Contact Indicates Good Health
Jun 22 2016
Deep Space Industries and SFL selected to provide satellites for HawkEye 360’s Pathfinder mission
May 26 2016
Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) to Provide LEO Bus to SSL
May 10 2016
NORSAT-1 Launch Postponed Due to Faulty Bracket Provided by Arianespace
Apr 14 2016
BRITE-Constellation Sees Stars in a New Light
Feb 05 2016
Deep Space Industries Teams with UTIAS Space Flight Laboratory to Demonstrate Autonomous Spacecraft Maneuvering
Jan 26 2016
exactView-9 Launched Successfully and Contacted
Sep 28 2015
View All News Articles View All Blog Articles
© 2014 University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies Space Flight Lab. All rights reserved.