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Project: StarFOX, Optical Navigation for the NASA Starling Mission

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The NASA Starling mission is the first in-flight demonstration of four key technologies enabling future spacecraft swarm missions. The six-month mission will use four CubeSats in low Earth orbit to demonstrate new algorithms allowing small spacecraft to operate in an autonomous, synchronized manner, advancing the following capabilities:

  • Swarm absolute and relative navigation
  • Swarm maneuver planning and execution
  • Swarm communications and networking
  • Swarm coordination and decision-making

The Space Rendezvous Laboratory will operate the Starling Formation-flying Optical eXperiment (StarFOX), which uses onboard star tracker cameras for navigation. An advanced algorithm utilizes star tracker images to compute spacecraft orientation and visually detect and track the other three spacecraft within the swarm. The resulting bearing angle measurements are used to determine the absolute and relative orbits of each swarm member. Measurements are shared between spacecraft via an inter-satellite link, enabling to swarm to cooperatively achieve awareness of its location in an autonomous, self-contained fashion.

The technologies demonstrated by StarFOX will allow future multi-spacecraft systems to avoid relying on Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) signals or similar external measurement sources. This capability is especially useful for enabling space domain awareness and future multi-spacecraft outside Earth orbit. Starling is planned for launch in August 2022.

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Related Publications

Kruger, J., D'Amico, S.;
Autonomous Angles-Only Multitarget Tracking for Spacecraft Swarms;
Acta Astronautica, Volume 189, September 2021, pp. 514-529. DOI:

Sullivan, J., Koenig, A. W., Kruger, J., D'Amico, S.;
Generalized Angles-Only Navigation Architecture for Autonomous Distributed Space Systems;
Journal of Guidance, Control, and Dynamics, Vol. 44, No. 6 (2021), pp. 1087-1105. DOI: doi/abs/10.2514/1.G005439

Koenig A. W., Kruger J., Sullivan J., D'Amico S.;
ARTMS: Enabling Autonomous Distributed Angles-Only Orbit Estimation for Spacecraft Swarms;
2021 American Control Conference, New Orleans, Louisiana, May 26-28 (2021).

Koenig A. W., D'Amico S.;
Observability-Aware Numerical Algorithm for Angles-Only Initial Relative Orbit Determination;
2020 AAS/AIAA Astrodynamics Specialist Conference, South Lake Tahoe, California, August 9 - 13 (2020).

Sullivan J.;
Nonlinear Angles-Only Orbit Estimation for Autonomous Distributed Space Systems;
Stanford University, PhD Thesis (2020).

Sanchez H., McIntosh D., Cannon H., Pires C., Sullivan J., O'Connor B., D'Amico S.;
Starling1: Swarm Technology Demonstration;
32nd Annual Small Satellite Conference, AIAA/USU, SSC18-VII-08, Logan, UT, August 4-9 (2018).

Sullivan J., D’Amico S.;
Nonlinear Kalman Filtering for Improved Angles-Only Navigation Using Relative Orbital Elements;
Journal of Guidance, Control, and Dynamics, Vol. 40, No. 9, pp. 2183-2200 (September 2017).