Use of laser beams to configure and command spacecraft swarms

Himangshu Kalita, Leonard Dean Vance, Vishnu Reddy, Jekan Thangavelautham

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


The availability of high-performance Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) electronics that can withstand Low Earth Orbit conditions has opened avenue for wide deployment of CubeSats and small-satellites. Utilizing many scores, if not hundreds of these satellites can provide services to end-users on the ground such as position, navigation and tracking (PNT), persistent earth imaging, secure communications and off-grid data storage. Not all these satellites operate as intended in space and some may face premature failure and others may become immobile. This requires effective traffic management. In our approach, a secure laser beam will be used to directly communicate gestures and control one or more spacecraft, including a swarm. Each satellite will have a customized “smart skin” containing solar panels, power and control circuitry and an embedded secondary propulsion unit. A secondary propulsion unit may include electrospray propulsion, solar radiation pressure-based system, photonic laser thrusters and Lorentz force thrusters. Solar panels typically occupy the largest surface area on an earth orbiting satellite. Furthermore, our previous work has shown that commercial space-grade solar panels can be used to detect and distinguish blue and purple laser beams even when exposed to sunlight. A secure laser beam from another spacecraft or from the ground would interact with solar panels of the spacecraft. In a swarm, the secure laser beam would be used to first designate a temporary leader of the swarm, followed by configuration of the spacecraft swarm formation. In this paper we present a low-cost on-orbit mission concept to demonstrate the technology using a pair of 2U CubeSats and a dozen SunCube 1F FemtoSats. Using this low-cost mission, we hope to validate the technology in space.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationGuidance, Navigation, and Control, 2019
EditorsHeidi E. Hallowell
PublisherUnivelt Inc.
Number of pages12
ISBN (Print)9780877036616
StatePublished - 2019
Event42nd AAS Rocky Mountain Section Guidance and Control Conference, 2019 - Breckenridge, United States
Duration: Jan 31 2019Feb 6 2019

Publication series

NameAdvances in the Astronautical Sciences
ISSN (Print)0065-3438


Conference42nd AAS Rocky Mountain Section Guidance and Control Conference, 2019
Country/TerritoryUnited States

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aerospace Engineering
  • Space and Planetary Science


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