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LOGAN, Utah – Benchmark Space Systems intends to offer satellite operators the type of driver assistance popular in automobiles.
On Aug. 7, Benchmark began demonstrating SmartAIM, Smart Advanced In-Space Mobility, at the SmallSat Conference here. SmartAIM is software embedded in Benchmark’s chemical, electric and hybrid propulsion systems that allows satellite operators to select among tiers of autonomous flight.
“It’s an intelligent software layer that can take abstract commands like go to a desired orbital location and create maneuvers,” Chris Carella, Benchmark chief commercial officer, told SpaceNews. “It can control the engine for you. Or, you can tell it what you’d like your satellite to be doing and it can make that happen.”
For example, SmartAIM can provide station-keeping, payload pointing, collision avoidance and maneuver planning.
“We offer it at different levels of handoff of control,” Carella said. “The entry level would be more of an assist mode. But we have the ability to automatically take information about conjunctions and maneuver without human interaction. “
Autonomous operations are becoming increasingly popular as satellite constellations grow. While satellite operators can manually control a dozen satellites, constellations of hundreds of satellites require more autonomy.
“Constellations are going to grow beyond what is feasible to manage in today’s manual methods,” Carella said. “We’re trying to streamline some of the simple operational tasks and some of the short-notice-warning tasks.”
Benchmark plans to integrate Kayhan Space’s Pathfinder spaceflight safety service with the SmartAIM platform.
If a satellite operator said, “There’s a conjunction on bird 72 on Friday,” SmartAIM could calculate the collision probability and determine the best course of action, Carella said. Through the new partnership, “Kayhan will directly inform SmartAIM when there’s a conjunction and we’ll handle it,” he added.
Siamak Hesar, Kayhan co-founder and CEO, said in a statement that the company was “thrilled to partner with Benchmark” and “integrate with their SmartAIM intelligent propulsion solution to maximize safe and sustainable space operations.”
Satellite operators establish the rules for addressing conjunctions. For instance, they can direct SmartAIM to optimize for propellant preservation, miss distance or electrical power preservation.
“SmartAIM can make that decision, create commands and maneuver,” Carella said. “If that scares folks, they can have human-in-the-loop checkpoints.”
SmartAIM’s design, development and testing was funded in part by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate.
Satellites equipped with initial versions of SmartAIM for collision avoidance and station keeping are scheduled to launch in 2024. Additional operator assistance and autopilot functions will be offered in late 2024 and 2025.
“Benchmark is in full production mode on propulsion systems for several government and commercial missions,” Carella said in a statement. “Operators are not just looking to Benchmark to provide propulsion hardware, but a full life cycle partnership and innovative bundled mobility solutions to maneuver safely and confidently through space.”
Vermont-based Benchmark is known for producing nontoxic chemical, electric and hybrid propulsion systems. The company is fulfilling orders for dozens of Xantus electric metal plasma thrusters, according to an Aug. 7 news release. In addition, Benchmark is manufacturing hundreds of Lynx bi-propellant thrusters for low-Earth orbit and cislunar missions.
Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She... More by Debra Werner
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