Decentralized formation flying control in a multiple-team hierarchy

Joseph B. Mueller, Stephanie J. Thomas

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


In recent years, formation flying has been recognized as an enabling technology for a variety of mission concepts in both the scientific and defense arenas. Examples of developing missions at NASA include magnetospheric multiscale (MMS), solar imaging radio array (SIRA), and terrestrial planet finder (TPF). For each of these missions, a multiple satellite approach is required in order to accomplish the large-scale geometries imposed by the science objectives. In addition, the paradigm shift of using a multiple satellite cluster rather than a large, monolithic spacecraft has also been motivated by the expected benefits of increased robustness, greater flexibility, and reduced cost. However, the operational costs of monitoring and commanding a fleet of close-orbiting satellites is likely to be unreasonable unless the onboard software is sufficiently autonomous, robust, and scalable to large clusters. This paper presents the prototype of a system that addresses these objectives-a decentralized guidance and control system that is distributed across spacecraft using a multiple team framework. The objective is to divide large clusters into teams of "manageable" size, so that the communication and computation demands driven by N decentralized units are related to the number of satellites in a team rather than the entire cluster. The system is designed to provide a high level of autonomy, to support clusters with large numbers of satellites, to enable the number of spacecraft in the cluster to change post-launch, and to provide for on-orbit software modification. The distributed guidance and control system will be implemented in an object-oriented style using a messaging architecture for networking and threaded applications (MANTA). In this architecture, tasks may be remotely added, removed, or replaced post launch to increase mission flexibility and robustness. This built-in adaptability will allow software modifications to be made on-orbit in a robust manner. The prototype system, which is implemented in Matlab, emulates the object-oriented and message-passing features of the MANTA software. In this paper, the multiple team organization of the cluster is described, and the modular software architecture is presented. The relative dynamics in eccentric reference orbits is reviewed, and families of periodic, relative trajectories are identified, expressed as sets of static geometric parameters. The guidance law design is presented, and an example reconfiguration scenario is used to illustrate the distributed process of assigning geometric goals to the cluster. Next, a decentralized maneuver planning approach is presented that utilizes linearprogramming methods to enact reconfiguration and coarse formation keeping maneuvers. Finally, a method for performing online collision avoidance is discussed, and an example is provided to gauge its performance.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)112-138
Number of pages27
JournalAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences
StatePublished - 2005
Externally publishedYes


  • Decentralized formation flying control
  • Multiple team hierarchy


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