In-flight demonstration of close-range formation flying modes is discussed with emphasis on low cost, based on spacecraft design simplicity and minimum size, and hence minimum launch cost. Piggy-back launch of three identical demonstration spacecraft is the preferred option. This demonstration includes comprehensive collection and analysis, on the ground, of relative motion data derived from GPS signals that are received by the participating satellites. In addition to realistically reflecting the known Keplerian and non-Keplerian characteristics as part of the flight dynamics analysis, an important concern is to demonstrate the less well-known effects of differential drag perturbations. These can be deliberately induced by small aerodynamic cross section variations on the satellites. Results of the demonstration mission will benefit currently projected and other future missions that require close-formation flying, e.g., radar and visual observation missions, by proving feasibility, assisting detailed and comprehensive operations planning, and helping diminish their potential risks.
Meissinger, H.F., J. Collins, G. Gurevich, S. Dawson. 13th Annual AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites. August 1999, Logan, Utah.