Plan Generation for Autonomous Small Spacecraft Swarms
Award last edited on: 1/23/2023

Sponsored Program
Awarding Agency
Total Award Amount
Award Phase
Solicitation Topic Code
Principal Investigator
Timothy Woodbury

Company Information

Emergent Space Technologies Inc

7901 Sandy Spring Road Suite 511
Laurel, MD 20707
   (301) 345-1535
Location: Single
Congr. District: 04
County: Prince Georges

Phase I

Contract Number: 80NSSC21C0183
Start Date: 5/18/2021    Completed: 11/19/2021
Phase I year
Phase I Amount
Small satellite (smallsat) swarms and constellations are widely used in low Earth orbit (LEO), and government operators have expressed interest in missions at higher altitudes and in proximity operations. These new mission regimes are more challenging and require greater onboard autonomy capabilities to act and plan without a ground system in the loop. To address this need, we propose to develop an onboard planning capability for smallsats. This software enables constellations or swarms to respond dynamically to failures and opportunities independent of ground systems. The innovation addresses specific gaps in the state of the art identified in our subtopic to enable operation of swarms without the need for ground system commanding. We identify two critical qualities the planner should have. First is the ability to construct a plan that incorporates likely exception information as a safety check. This reduces the frequency of replanning and builds in robustness to exceptions that are well-understood by the operator. The second quality is a standard interface with specialized “subplanners” for functions like maneuvers, constellation design, and so on. This second ability ensures the planning software can interact flexibly with external software, which may be mandated for particular applications. Subplanners are also an appealing approach for decomposing a large planning problem into more tractable sub-problems. The proposed Phase I work will develop a proof-of-concept planner and demonstrate its operation in conjunction with Emergent’s flight software for autonomous mission execution. Potential NASA Applications (Limit 1500 characters, approximately 150 words): NASA has expressed interest in missions involving cooperating small satellites above low Earth orbit, which will benefit from onboard planning. More conventional NASA missions can also benefit from greater onboard autonomous features, including planning. We are targeting future NASA space missions such as Landsat Next (Earth Science), Lunar Gateway and LunaNet (Exploration), Solar-Terrestrial Observer for the Response of the Magnetosphere, HelioSwarm, and Auroral Reconstruction CubeSwarm (Heliophysics). Potential Non-NASA Applications (Limit 1500 characters, approximately 150 words): Various non-NASA government entities have expressed interest in small satellite missions in environments that will benefit from onboard planning. These include Air Force Research Laboratory’s Cislunar Highway Patrol System, and the Space Development Agency’s Tracking and Transport Layer. Duration: 6

Phase II

Contract Number: 80NSSC22CA147
Start Date: 5/4/2022    Completed: 5/3/2024
Phase II year
Phase II Amount
Spacecraft operators are increasingly exploring distributed mission concepts and moving to more remote regimes, presenting new technical challenges that can be addressed by onboard autonomy capabilities. Onboard planning enables new tasks to be assimilated independently of ground commands, enhancing near-Earth operations and enabling remote operations. Modern sensor algorithms can run locally on spacecraft to detect potential tasks, such as data collection opportunities for civil science missions, or launch events for defense missions. Planning capabilities are needed to prioritize and schedule tasks with overlapping windows of opportunity without the need for human intervention. Our proposed innovation, which we call Adjutant, is flight software (FSW) for planning that leverages state of the art optimization methods for scalability and relevance to current operations, an open systems approach to plan management from multiple sources, and code generation to simplify mission integration and reduce development time for operators. Adjutant is directly relevant to applications identified in our subtopic, such as missions operating “autonomously and cooperatively at cislunar or more remote destinations” by reducing and eventually eliminating the need for “ground-based semiautonomous scheduling”. Reducing the need for ground-based operations enables more efficient operation of near-Earth constellations, and can be extended to enable persistent remote operations in Cislunar or more remote environments. Our proposed Phase II extension will develop FSW prototypes of planning, goal monitoring, and plan management applications. In conjunction with our existing FSW applications, Adjutant will enable onboard planning and execution of complex missions, including activities such as station keeping, navigation, and fault recovery. Onboard planning will support missions including Earth science such as Landsat Next, heliophysics such as GDC, and exploration such as LunaNet. Potential NASA Applications (Limit 1500 characters, approximately 150 words): Exploration Missions? LunaNet? Venus Flagship Mission? Lunar Gateway? Heliophysics? Geospace Dynamics Constellation? HelioSwarm? Solar-Terrestrial Observer for the Response of the Magnetosphere? Earth Observation Missions? Landsat Next? FireSat Potential Non-NASA Applications (Limit 1500 characters, approximately 150 words): Space Development Agency (SDA) National Defense Space Architecture Tracking Layer & Transport Layer? Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL)? Cislunar Highway Patrol System (CHPS): remote operations in Cislunar space? Commercial: Enable dynamic replanning in between contact with ground stations? Earth-observing constellation operators, e.g.:? Planet, Capella?, Hawkeye 360 Duration: 24