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Simulating the formation-flying future of space

Copyright ESA

All space missions are difficult. Docking a pair of spacecraft is tough but flying multiple satellites together in formation is the real cutting edge.

A new simulator is now allowing mission planners to get to grips with multi-satellite missions to come, starting with ESA’s Proba-3.

Several space agencies are preparing formation-flying missions, but it is hard to overstate the difficulty they face: separate expensive pieces of hardware, each one zipping through space at several kilometres per second, may have to manoeuvre to within metres of each other to achieve their goals.

The relative positions of the satellites must be maintained precisely as they close in: lose control of one part of the formation, even momentarily, and the satellites risk destruction. And orbital dynamics dictate the satellites’ orbits will tend to cross as they circle Earth, another worrying factor for their controllers.

Even so, there are specific tasks only formation flying can do – and a new computing resource should help to achieve them.

The Formation Flying Test Bed is a suite of software running across linked computers to simulate all aspects of a formation-flying mission. Overseen by ESA’s Software Systems division at the agency’s ESTEC space [...]