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Trusted Automated Satellite Operations for Mission Life


OUSD (R&E) CRITICAL TECHNOLOGY AREA(S): Trusted AI and Autonomy; Advanced Computing and Software; Integrated Sensing and Cyber; Space Technology


OBJECTIVE: Space assets are currently almost completely operated from the ground.  In order to ensure operation in an increasingly contested space environment, the spacecraft must make autonomous decisions and take action.  The USSF will require trusted autonomous spacecraft to operate throughout their lifetimes under these circumstances.  Hence, technology is needed to provide long periods of time without operator intervention, and this need should be extended to the life of the vehicle.


DESCRIPTION: Create an on-orbit autonomous software suite or architecture which can autonomously evaluate and recommend courses of action in combination with information derived off-board, doing so autonomously when needed.


The current state of the art is that many autonomous sub-modules for spacecraft control have been devised.  The modules vary in their use from CubeSats up to small refrigerator sized form factor systems and from single spacecraft to clusters/mega constellations.  But there has not been an effort to bring together these advances into a lifetime autonomous software suite.  The full capability desired for this tech topic is to go beyond single modular autonomy approaches to one of operating through normal pattern of life from launch and early orbit to normal operations, to end of life.  While the goal is a fully autonomous on-orbit system, multiple sub-elements are needed to develop a trusted capability and which the effort solution would need to address: 1) Data analytics techniques such as machine intelligence to build statistical understanding of a spacecraft’s own normal pattern of life, deviations and course of action (COA) assessment tools 2) Methods for validation and verification of autonomous decision-making 3) Visualization tools focused on interaction between autonomous system and human users 4) A cyber-secure environment for this software suite  5) Electronics capability to enable computation and COA execution on-orbit.


PHASE I: Conduct a comprehensive review of current research in spacecraft autonomy including academic, civil and commercial sources.  Investigate and compile the possible requirements for an integrated autonomy suite including key subsystems such as guidance, navigation, and control; thermal; propulsion; communications; and payload maintenance over the three major phases of spacecraft lifetime: Launch and early orbit, normal operations, and end of life.  Describe how to merge current work on modular autonomous software and provide a design path to integrate across multiple subsystems software modules and across the life cycle of the spacecraft.  The form factor of the spacecraft could range from a CubeSat up to a rideshare class (size of a half refrigerator) which may require different solutions.  The deliverable should be a critical design review (CDR) quality engineering artifact and or a demonstration of the qualities of a lifecycle autonomy on a testbed (Software in the loop (SIL)) by the proposer.


PHASE II: Phase II will build and deliver a breadboard (TRL5)  or hardware in the loop (HIL) quality solution, to be demonstrated on at least one form factor size, from 6, 12, 27 U CubeSat up to rideshare class (size of half a refrigerator), for vehicles of 3-year, 5-year and 10-year operational lifetimes.  The simulation shall take in normal environmental influences, micrometeoroid impacts, radiation events, and maintain the vehicle operations in all three life phases as well as maintain a positive energy balance, pointing stability, and payload operational environments.  Payloads can be communications, navigation, and sensing.


PHASE III DUAL USE APPLICATIONS: The prototype lifetime autonomous system from Phase 2 shall be tested by a government sponsored entity (UARC, FFRDC, DoD Lab) to validate the capability of the software and hardware to meet the requirements.  Formal documentation will be provided to enable the proposer to share the architecture verification and validation with others in the supply chain as a direct injection to the DIB.  

Evaluate and document transition opportunities for utilization in approved Government and civilian applications.



  1. Operations for Autonomous Spacecraft, Castano, R, et al. Proceedings of the 2022 IEEE Aerospace Conference, arXiv:2111.10970v1, 16 pgs.;
  2. Design and Testing of Autonomous Distributed Space Systems, Cramer, N., et al, Small Satellite Conference 21-1-04.;


KEYWORDS: autonomous spacecraft; spacecraft decision making;

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