Continuous Improvement of Efficiency in Spacecraft Operations and Testing with Automation

The quest for efficiency in spacecraft operations and testing is a continuous journey marred by complex challenges and high stakes. Examples from many space missions show that improvements in the early phases of development have a positive effect later in the project. The importance of continuous improvement cannot be overstated; without it, missions face increased risks, inflated budgets, and potential failure, threatening the objectives and viability of space exploration endeavors.


Leveraging Terma's extensive experience, with over 50 years in the space industry and support for more than 75 missions with own spacecraft software, we offer a unique perspective on overcoming the challenges of spacecraft operations and testing. Our insights are grounded in Terma's long history of providing innovative operational solutions. We'll describe the role of automation and provide tips of implementing automation into spacecraft operations.

The Role of Automation in Spacecraft Efficiency

The landscape of spacecraft system operations is evolving, with automation playing a pivotal role in this transformation. Automation technologies, designed to perform tasks with minimal human intervention, have introduced significant advancements in spacecraft design, testing, and real-time operations. Yet, despite these innovations, current methodologies exhibit limitations. The reliance on legacy systems and the challenge of integrating new technologies with existing frameworks pose substantial hurdles, highlighting a gap in achieving seamless operational efficiency.

Consider the CCS5 system as a prime illustration. It's a comprehensive solution that spans from initial testing phases through to full spacecraft operation in orbit, exemplifying how automation can not only streamline processes but also integrate assembly, integration, and testing (AIT) seamlessly.

Pros of Automation

  • Enhanced Precision and Reliability: Automation reduces human error, increasing the precision of spacecraft operations and testing.
  • Time and Cost Efficiency: Automated processes accelerate testing and operational procedures, contributing to cost reductions and optimized resource utilization.

Cons of Automation

  • Integration Challenges: Incorporating advanced automation systems into existing spacecraft frameworks can be complex and resource-intensive.
  • Operational Rigidity: Over-reliance on automated systems may reduce flexibility in unexpected scenarios, where human intervention could offer creative solutions.

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Automation for Different Types of Space Missions

When considering the implementation of automation in space missions, it's crucial to recognize that the specific requirements and benefits vary significantly across different mission types. These variations influence the complexity, cost, and focus areas of the automation systems best suited for each mission category.

Real-Time Missions (e.g., Geostationary Satellites)

Real-time missions, such as those involving geostationary satellites, demand high levels of immediate interaction through direct telecommands and telemetry verification. The primary focus for these missions is the continuous service provision, necessitating swift anomaly intervention capabilities.

An automation system for real-time missions must, therefore, include:

  • Sophisticated contingency handling for both spacecraft and ground systems.
  • A large inventory of nominal and contingency control procedures, requiring substantial effort in generation and validation.

The complexity and cost of automation systems for real-time missions are significantly higher, reflecting the need for extensive automated procedures and advanced functionality.

Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Missions (e.g., Earth Observation)

LEO missions, such as earth observation satellites, typically involve off-line control due to the brief duration of ground station visibility. These missions benefit from:

  • Moderate levels of on-board autonomy to ensure spacecraft survival outside of ground visibility.
  • Automation focused on ground system control and monitoring for efficient operation during ground station passes.
  • Simple anomaly detection tools, with alerts for expert intervention as immediate anomaly response is generally not essential.

The automation systems required for LEO missions are of medium complexity, prioritizing time-critical operations and efficient ground system management.

Deep-Space Missions

Deep-space missions operate with a high degree of on-board autonomy, similar to LEO missions, to ensure spacecraft safety when outside ground coverage. Automation in deep-space missions emphasizes:

  • Comprehensive ground segment control and monitoring functions.
  • Offline operation modes for command preparation and telemetry analysis.
  • Automation of non-critical, repetitive tasks like report generation, without the need for quick reaction capabilities.
  • Simple alarm detection and notification mechanisms for anomalous situations requiring on-call intervention.

Given the long cruise durations and the operational characteristics of deep-space missions, they represent the most suitable candidates for the initial implementation of automation systems. The benefits of automation in these missions include significant reductions in manpower and operational costs.

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Quantitative and Qualitative Gains from Advanced Automation

The adoption of advanced automation in space missions has heralded significant improvements in operational efficiency, reliability, and safety. By examining specific metrics and case studies, particularly focusing on the implementation of CCS5, we can underscore the tangible benefits that automation brings to the complex arena of space exploration.

Operational Efficiency Improvements

Advanced automation systems, including CCS5, have demonstrated substantial gains across several key operational efficiency metrics:

  • Reduction in Manual Labor Hours: Automation significantly reduces the time personnel must dedicate to routine and complex operational tasks. For example, with help from the CCS5 Autopilot, users can automate complex spacecraft maneuvers and system monitoring tasks allowing them to focus on more strategic activities.
  • Decrease in Error Rates: Automated systems minimize human errors in operations and testing, leading to more reliable mission execution.
  • Increased Testing Frequency and Thoroughness: With automation, it's feasible to conduct more extensive and frequent testing cycles, enhancing the robustness of spacecraft systems without a corresponding increase in time or financial resources.
  • Faster Anomaly Response: Automation enables quicker detection and response to operational anomalies, reducing potential mission impacts.
  • Improved Data Analysis: Automated tools provide faster and more accurate processing and analysis of data from spacecraft operations, leading to better decision-making.

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Tips in Advanced Automation Integration

Integrating advanced automation, such as Terma's CCS5, into space missions can vastly improve efficiency and reliability. Here are some condensed tips for successful implementation:

Technical Integration: A deep understanding of the specific mission needs is essential. Adaptable interfaces and a modular system design facilitate the seamless inclusion of spacecraft tools like CCS5, providing compatibility with a range of mission architectures.

Safety: Incorporating fail-safe mechanisms is crucial to mitigate risks in automated systems.

Appropriate Application: Automation is most beneficial for long-duration missions and series of identical satellites where consistency and long-term operational management are paramount. It streamlines processes and ensures sustained performance.

Prioritize Ground Segment Automation: Often, the automation of the ground segment, including telemetry and telecommand interactions, is more critical than spacecraft control automation, especially if reducing shift manpower is a goal.

Harmonization and Robustness: Integrate ground station automation with spacecraft control to create a unified operation system. This harmonization aids in resource management and the resolution of potential conflicts in multi-mission facilities. Ensuring the robustness of these systems, particularly when implementing new technology or upgrades, is essential for maintaining mission integrity.

How Terma Can Help You

Terma's expertise is benchmarked by the efficiency and reliability improvements observed in more than 75 space missions, including Euclid, MetOp-SG and OneWeb. The CCS5 system represents a leap forward in automation, offering a unified tool for operation and testing that is intuitive, adaptable, and comprehensive. Case studies from missions illustrate how CCS5 has revolutionized spacecraft operations, enhancing efficiency, reliability, and safety across the board.

Check out more about CCS5.

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The transformative impact of advanced automation on spacecraft operations is undeniable. Systems like CCS5 are not just tools but essential partners in the quest for space exploration, offering unprecedented levels of operational efficiency, reliability, and safety. The role of next-generation automation, as pioneered by Terma, is indispensable in propelling future space missions to new frontiers, ensuring that the journey into the cosmos is as efficient and effective as the technology that propels it.