Astronauts fired this small, rectangular hunk from the International Space Station today. The payload will separate into two autonomous satellites as part of a research program to take us one tiny step closer towards making asteroid mining a reality. If we ever want to mine asteroids, we're going to need to step up our game for multiple satellites sharing data and working together. A pair of Texan universities are working together on a four-mission sequence to create a pair of robots that can autonomously rendezvous and dock in space. The project is called Low Earth Orbiting Navigation Experiment for Spacecraft Testing Autonomous Rendezvous and Docking — or Lonestar if you ignore the D.
Lonestar freshly released from the space station. Image credit: NASA/ESA/Tim Peake
Lonestar is actually two satellites disguised as one — AggieSat4 built at Texas A&M University, and BEVO-2 built at University of Texas. AggieSat4 is the bigger satellite, and will spit out BEVO-2 once the pair are in their own orbit free of the station. They will be testing communications and positioning.
Once separated, they will cross-link their communications and start swapping data. Each will hook into existing GPS networks to determine their locations, then start up a transmission to ground radio stations. This will improve our understanding of cross-linking communications between satellites and ground control. The mission will also improve our understanding of how well the global positioning system works in orbit, which is part of a bigger problem on how to efficiently navigate in deep space.
Lonestar was carried to the space station as part of the fifth SpaceX cargo run. It was ejected from the station on the Japanese kinetic launcher.
Top image: The Lonestar satellite package being released from on January 28, 2016. Credit: NASA/ESA/Tim Peake