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Grouping Small Satellites into Powerful Optical Arrays

A team of scientists from Aurora Flight Sciences and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Space Systems Laboratory are developing a method to optimize the maneuvering of multiple-spacecraft to generate synthesized images. The Synthetic Imager Maneuvering Optimization (SIMO) technology is applicable to several National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Department of Defense (DOD) space-based missions. NASA is interested in the technology for future space-based astronomy explorations while DOD is considering multiple-spacecraft missions for observation of terrestrial and spaceborne objects. NASA and the DoD are also interested in robust and efficient multi-vehicle reconfiguration for satellite servicing, docking, inspection and assembly of large apertures.

Synthetic imaging employs an array of small spacecraft, operating cooperatively to represent the optical qualities of a much larger single spacecraft. A major benefit of such an array is a lower launch costs (small spacecraft can be launched cheaper and in  groups). Additionally, the potential for gradual system upgrades and possibility of in orbit replacement of failed elements are feasible in this method.

SIMO technology addresses the main challenges of coordinated satellite maneuvering - coordinating the maneuvers of multiple spacecraft to use minimal fuel and time to create the highest quality image. Time and fuel-optimal maneuvers are only a part of the optimization problem.  Selecting the maneuver waypoints (number and location) which determine the quality of the synthesized image further complicates command and control. The number of spacecraft, the size of their individual apertures and the type of propulsion system used also impacts imaging rate, propellant mass and mission cost only adding to the complexity.

"Capturing all of these mission aspects in an integrated mission optimization framework helps mission designers to select the most appropriate architecture for meeting the needs and constraints of synthetic imaging missions," said Joe Parrish, Aurora's Vice President for Research & Development and the principal investigator for this project. "We anticipate that there are other applications both within NASA and beyond, and in military and commercial sectors." Aurora is exploring the SIMO technology under a NASA awarded Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) Phase 2 contract.