December 8, 2023

Image of CubeSats in space
A new agreement with NASA paves the way for UT Austin researchers and the Texas Spacecraft Laboratory to build and launch a CubeSat that will help spacecraft determine their location in relationship to the Earth and, eventually, the moon. Photo courtesy NASA/JPL-CalTech

GPS devices make it easier than ever before to travel around the world, and that’s only possible because of a massive satellite network that serves as the backbone of the technology.

As NASA seeks to return to the moon – and beyond – there is a push to replicate these navigation capabilities in space. The big problem: building and launching these satellites is exorbitantly expensive, even more so when sending them outside of Earth's orbit.

A new agreement with NASA paves the wave for researchers from The University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Spacecraft Laboratory to build and launch a small satellite with embedded machine learning technology to help spacecraft figure out their location in relationship to the Earth and, eventually, the moon. That will ultimately help ensure more accurate navigation and landing.

"This technology will allow us to use images of the lunar surface to determine where we are," said Brandon Jones, an associate professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering's Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, who is leading the work. "It's similar to the maritime community where they use lighthouses to figure out how far they are from shore."

The Work: The SpaceCraft for Optical-based Position Estimation-1 (SCOPE-1) mission will demonstrate that this technology works in Earth orbit for eventual use near the moon. Earlier this year, Jones completed an agreement with NASA to launch the satellite. And this month, the team came to a cooperative agreement with NASA to build the spacecraft and associated software as well as develop testing of the technology.

scope-1 mission patch graphicThese small satellites, called Cube Satellites (CubeSats), are much smaller than what's in use today. The satellite for SCOPE-1 was designed by students in the Texas Spacecraft Laboratory. CubeSats are inexpensive to build, and because of their small size they can hitch a ride on any rocket launch, instead of needing separate costly launches.

The researchers say a whole network of these satellites would cost less than one of today's GPS satellites.

To jumpstart this work, the UT researchers will receive $1.9 million from NASA along with assistance to cover some launch costs.

Why It Matters: NASA's Artemis missions will rely on innovative technologies to explore more of the lunar surface than ever before. And that is just one small step toward the next giant leap: sending the first astronauts to Mars.

NASA is working closely with commercial, academic and international partners to develop these technologies. This work will require new, more robust communications, navigation, and networking capabilities. NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) program has developed the LunaNet architecture to meet these needs. The technology demonstrated with SCOPE-1 has the potential to help this network achieve its navigation goals.

These small satellites fit right into NASA's plans.

“What we're trying to do in this iteration of space travel is so much more complex than anything that has come before, so it requires an entire new suite of tools and technologies to navigate these new spacecraft safely to their destinations," said Renato Zanetti,” associate professor of aerospace engineering and co-leader on the project.

What's Next: The next few years will be heavy on testing. The goal is to have this small satellite ready for launch by 2027. Assembly is set for the fall of 2026.

In this first phase of testing, the researchers will deploy the technology in Earth orbit, using islands to serve as a replacement for the surface of the moon. The satellites take images of the surrounding environment and then machine learning technology interprets the data to help estimate positioning. They will have onboard GPS technology to validate how close the navigational system gets to its true state.