Spacecraft formation flight is the control of collaborative distributed spacecraft systems, enabling a new class of mission architecture with the potential of achieving unprecedented engineering and science performance. Spacecraft formation control technology encompasses autonomous proximity operations and rendezvous and docking, collision avoidance, precision formation flying and multi-spacecraft distributed systems through to actively controlled swarms. Applications that utilize spacecraft formation flying technology include celestial body sample retrieval, spacecraft on-orbit servicing and refueling, arrays for geospatial scientific measurements, synthetic apertures for telescopic and stellar interferometry, distributed formations for communication relays and power generation.
The Formation Control Testbed (FCT) is a unique testing platform for the development of spacecraft formation flying architectures and technologies. The FCT features two robots with six degree of freedom, near-frictionless motion capabilities that utilize spacecraft computer and avionics systems. The robots are used to implement formation flying and autonomous proximity operations algorithms as well as test and develop relative sensing instruments and real time communications.