Tiny satellite tests the possibility of automatic maneuvering in orbit

(ORDO NEWS) — In May 2022, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched the Transporter-5 mission into orbit.

The mission contained a collection of micro- and nanosatellites from private and public organizations. The Agile MicroSat (AMS) satellite of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was also on board.

AMS’s primary mission is to test automatic maneuvering capabilities in active Very Low Earth Orbit (VLEO) operations from 525 kilometers above the surface and below.

VLEO is a difficult area to locate satellites because the higher air density, combined with variable space weather, causes increased and unpredictable drag, requiring frequent maneuvers to maintain position.

Using electro-ion propulsion and custom algorithms, the AMS team is testing how well their satellite can perform automatic navigation and control during the initial flight period.

Engineers see AMS as a kind of Pathfinder mission in the area of ​​small satellite autonomy.

Autonomy is needed to support the growing number of small satellite launches for industry and science, as it can reduce maintenance costs, enable missions that require quick and unexpected responses, and help avoid collisions in crowded skies.

AMS is the first ever test of a nanosatellite with this type of automated maneuvering.

Operators can instruct the AMS to descend and maintain a 300 km orbit, for example, and the software will schedule engine launches to achieve that command autonomously using measurements from the onboard GPS receiver.

AMS has two secondary missions – “Camera” and “Beacon”. The first mission is to take photographs and short video clips of the Earth’s surface.

“One of the things we hope to demonstrate is the ability to respond to current events,” says Rebecca Keenan, who helped prepare the payload. “We could hear about something that happened, like a fire or a flood, and then react pretty quickly to send a satellite to get an image.”

Another payload, Mayak, is testing new adaptive optics capabilities for tracking fast-moving targets by sending a laser beam from a moving satellite to a ground station at the Haystack Observatory in Massachusetts.

The provision of accurate laser guidance from a mobile satellite could help various types of space missions such as communications and space debris tracking.

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