The first satellite was launched by the USSR in 1957, signalling the begining of the twentieth century’s space race and igniting humanity’s fascination with the final frontier. The Sputnik satellite was the forerunner to the nearly 6,600 artificial satellites that have since found a home in Earth’s orbit.

Each of these satellites are controlled by human pilots back on earth, which increases their operating expenditure. With this expense in mind, the University of Toronto Institute of Aerospace Studies Space Flight Laboratory (SFL), in collaboration with Deep Space Industries (DSI), recently announced the first successful demonstration of autonomous spacecraft maneuvering using two nanosatellites.

Nanosatellites have gained popularity in recent years because of their small, lightweight builds. This allows for cheaper production and ease of transportation in an industry where every pound matters. Working together with other nanosatellites, these devices can replace a single large satellite and provide more flexibility. They are able to adapt to tasks such as deep space asteroid mining operations.

Traditional, resource-laden human control of satellites is not feasible for the synchronized interactions of large nanosatellite flocks, resulting in a need for autonomous operation. SFL and DSI’s recent trial is revolutionary because a single satellite has never before autonomously programmed another to execute propulsive maneuvers, completely operator free.

“This experiment was a key demonstration of a critical capability for multi-spacecraft asteroid missions, as well as- constellations of spacecraft in Earth orbit,” said Grant Bonin, DSI’s chief engineer. “It was also a first step in demonstrating ship-to-shore command relay in-space, which could potentially reduce the difficulty of communicating with very small spacecraft at long range.”

The trial made use of two Canadian Advanced Nanospace eXperiment (CanX) nanosatellites CanX-4 and CanX-5, which were designed, built, and launched by SFL in June 2014.

Working in partnership with DSI during the trial, SFL operators performed a DSI-defined experiment in orbit, in which CanX-4 autonomously programmed CanX-5 to thrust itself into a higher orbit without any operator input beyond SFL’s initial programming. Operators at SFL’s Mission Control Center in Toronto and data from the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base confirmed the success of the procedure.

“The experiment was an important risk reduction exercise for DSI, which intends to use small spacecraft for initial asteroid prospecting missions in the next five years,” says Bonin.

“The ability to relay commands from spacecraft to spacecraft, and perform in-space maneuvers autonomously, without operator intervention, is a critical capability that has major implications for mission-level redundancy — not just for asteroid missions, but also for low-cost Earth orbit constellations. This also shows that, if necessary, we can take the operator entirely out of the loop during a mission, which can translate into significant savings.”

The Space Flight Laboratory at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies develops state-of-the-art space technology at low cost without sacrificing quality or introducing risk. This project signals the start of what SFL and DSI expect to be a fruitful partnership that brings cutting-edge, low-cost space technologies and to the market, while also enabling low-cost asteroid missions.