Researchers win NASA funding for small spacecraft technology

A pair of researchers from Colorado School of Mines was one of nine university teams selected for NASA funding to develop and demonstrate new technologies and capabilities for small spacecraft.

Qi Han, associate professor of computer science, and Christopher Dreyer, research assistant professor of mechanical engineering, will receive $200,000 in funding per year for two years through NASA’s Smallsat Technology Partnerships Initiative. Working with two collaborators from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, their focus will be developing and evaluating algorithms for dynamic spacecraft networking and network-aware coordination of multi-spacecraft swarms.

“This project aims to develop a framework for tight integration of communication and controls as an enabling technology for NASA to effectively deploy swarms of small spacecraft,” Han said. “This framework will make it possible for a network of self-organizing small spacecraft to be highly collaborative among themselves for the monitoring of time-varying and geographically distributed phenomena.”

Current deep-space missions face several challenges, including intermittent network connectivity, stringent bandwidth constraints and diverse quality-of-service (QoS) and quality-of-data (QoD) requirements, she said. 

“The use of a single platform creates non-optimal data-gathering conditions, thus requiring longer duration to meet science requirements,” Han said. “For example, during the NEAR [Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous] mission, the orbit was a compromise resulting in non-optimal data-gathering conditions for most instruments. Up to a third of the time, communicating with the Earth required maneuvering the spacecraft so that the asteroid was no longer in the instruments’ field of view.”

The distributed spacecraft network proposed by the Mines team would deploy a carrier spacecraft with larger storage and processing capabilities along with the swarm of small spacecraft in orbit about a near-Earth asteroid. 

“The carrier spacecraft is dedicated to data transfer, so it is responsible for sending data gathered by all the spacecraft to the deep space network,” Han said. “This setup will make sure that the spacecraft swarm can collect measurements uninterrupted in the shortest period of time.” 

As part of the project, researchers will also evaluate and demonstrate an integrated prototype system, using a team of unmanned aerial drones in the challenging wireless network environment of the Edgar Experimental Mine.

“The work nicely complements efforts at Mines to expand research and teaching in space-related fields, such as the Mines and Lockheed Martin software academy and the Space Resources Graduate Program,” said Dreyer, who works in the Center for Space Resources at Mines

Other universities to receive funding through NASA’s Smallsat initiative are Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Stanford University; Purdue University; Utah State University; University of Arizona; University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and University of Washington. Proposals were requested in three areas – instrument technologies for small spacecraft, technologies that enable large swarms of small spacecraft and technologies that enable deep-space small spacecraft missions. 

Emilie Rusch, Public Information Specialist, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3361 |
Mark Ramirez, Managing Editor, Communications and Marketing | 303-273-3088 |

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Colorado School of Mines is a public R1 research university focused on applied science and engineering, producing the talent, knowledge and innovations to serve industry and benefit society – all to create a more prosperous future.