Satellite Attitude Determination, Communication, and Control with AI

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  • NASA Ames Research Center[1]
  • Idaho Space Grant Consortium[2]
Team Name
  • FALL 2020 - SPRING 2021
Faculty Adviser
  • Dr. Feng Li
  • Avery Brock [NASA ARC]
Team Members
  • Grace Rosenvall (ME)
  • Joseph Dennison (CompE)
  • Andrew Pilchart (EE)
  • Harrion Thomsen (EE)
  • Lillian Mortensen (MSE)
  • Taegen Williams (CS)
  • Cosette King (CS)
  • Robert Goes (CS)
  • Finan Bryan (ME)

Orbiting the Earth alongside large objects like the Hubble Telescope or the ISS, small satellites, known as CubeSats, are flown for educational or experimental purposes and are about the size of a shoebox. Two integral components of these small satellites are the ADCS, the system that controls the satellite’s position, and the communication module, the system that sends and receives information. Integrated, commercial versions of these systems are generally cost-prohibitive for a CubeSat application. The goal is to instead use individual components to make a cheaper control system and to create a board that will apply existing technology to the CubeSat scale. The solutions we create will lead to better control of the satellite and increased ability to send information to ground. This larger rate of data transfer allows for more complex functionality, like running a Star Tracker, to occur.

Problem Definition[edit]


Team Tardigrades' first primary goal will be to complete the development of the hardware and software for the Iridium 9523 Satellite Modem and its associated carrier module. This year will be the conclusive year on the project as it was started in the Fall of 2018 by the Capstone research team SCUBEE. The Iridium 9523 is capable of communications in the form of Short Burst Data (SBD) and stream network (RUDICS) modes. It has current use in NASA’s REBR program and The ESA’s QARMAN satellite. By completing this project, the effort put into the 9523 Satellite and its carrier will significantly improve the communication of smaller satellites in use. The design for this project is a fraction of the cost and complexity of standard satellite communication through radio modems. With progress already made on the project through the design team SCUBEE and team FIRE, a final flight-ready unit is a deliverable at the end of the project. If the project can uphold the deadline, the satellite could see a flight opportunity in 2021.

This portion of the project can be broken down into 3 main components:

  • The software necessary to provide encrypted communication from the ground server to the satellite.
  • Managing firmware development between the dev board and the SAMD51.
  • Designing a Radio Frequency power boost converter.

The ACDS sub-team has the complementary goal of developing a modular Attitude Determination and Control system for a 6U satellite. The focus of this group will be to develop a unit with lower cost and lead time compared to a commercial ACDS system. The final ACDS system should have comparable pointing abilities to commercial models, utilizing a combination of instruments (flywheels, magnetorquers) for attitude control and attitude determination (magnetometers, sun sensors, and IMUs). The group is expected to perform component selection, prototyping, and testing of individual components, but not the combined system.

This portion of the project can be broken down into 4 main components:

  • Consult materials against radiation shielding
  • Develop control and firmware needed
  • Development of electronic components and firmware for Sun Sensors, Magnetometers, and IMU
  • Consult components to research and manufacture including torque rods, PCB Magnetorquers and Reaction Wheels


The Nano Orbital Workshop (NOW) department at NASA Ames focuses on finding cost-efficient solutions to small satellite development. This department researches cutting-edge development in computer science and engineering to create novel low-cost technology. The NOW Group has partnered with the University of Idaho's research initiative for many years to introduce students to the innovations in satellite development. These interest groups can complete educational satellites and see demonstrations through flight. With the recent launch of the TES-10 satellite, the NOW group is focusing on the use of GPU processors in space. Some of the current interests in GPU processors can be seen in its ability for autonomous navigation, onboard network communications for data transfer, and guided reentry via Exo-Brake technology. This year, the team will be focusing on the continuation of the use of the TFLOP GPU processors and begin the design and prototype for a new electromechanical satellite system.

  • Guided Parafoil System (GPS)
  • A team in 2014 had completed the foundation of the project by creating the guided parafoil system that can move the returning payload to a pre-determined GPS location on its return.

  • SCUBEE: Space Communication Utilizing Backbone Existing Networks Fall 2018 - Spring 2019
  • Team SCUBEE had created a carrier module able to control and house the Iridium 9523 modem to integrate into the cube satellite. Team SCUBEE had also created the initial code for communicating over the Iridium satellite network using the Iridium 9523 via short bust data (SBD) messages.

  • FIRE: Firebox Iridium Re-Entry Fall 2019 - Spring 2020
  • Team fire built off of team SCUBEE's work by creating a building off of the communication system with the Iridium 9523, added the Canon BP-955 as a power source with a fireproof containment unit. Team FIRE had also re-designed the carrier module to host the Iridium 9523 in a more compact way.


Iridium 9523[edit]

Software / Firmware
  • Software for encrypted communication from the ground server to the Iridium 9523
  • Updated firmware for the switch between the SAMD21 to the SAMD51
  • Firmware for the initialization of power between the SAMD51 and the Iridium 9523
  • Software to handle unexpected technology behavior
  • Software for a ground server to communicate with the Iridium 9523
  • Software to parse and analyze decrypted information at the ground server and on the Cube Satellite
Development Board
  • An updated schematic for the development board
  • A Redesign of the Boost Converter
  • Hookup the Development Board to the SAMD51


  • Create a cost benefit analysis for Electrical Engineering components: sun sensors (coarse & fine), magnetometers, Inertial measurement unit (IMU)
  • Create a cost benefit analysis for Mechanical Engineering components: Torque Rods, Magnetorquers, Reaction Wheels
  • Research the best control device and firmware needed to control the selected hardware
Select Components
  • Select the best choice for satellite components and prepare for the assembly of a prototype
  • Select the best material for ware conditions with predictions on longevity
  • Select the best material for radiation shielding

AI in the Sky[edit]

  • Research and develop an experiment to demonstrate machine learning on an active space craft
  • Develop software to determine the radiation effects of a running GPU
  • Develop a low bandwidth slow-paced interactive program to demonstrate GPU abilities
  • Design a better carrier for the Nvidia GPU


The requirements as outlined by our client are shown below:

Iridium 9523 Main Requirements[edit]

  • Design and test firmware and ground software for SAMD51-based 9523 board
  • Need to update the SAMD1 board developed by SCUBEE to a SAMD51
  • Send schematic to our client for an updated development board with focus on updating the boost converter
  • Receive board back from client for final Development and testing
    Focus Required Parameters
    Computer Engineering
    • Hookup the Dev board to the SAMD51
    • Split firmware between the development board (Iridium 9523) and the SAMD51
    Electrical Engineering
    • Hookup the Dev boar to the SAMD51
    • Design the RF Power Boost Converter - Client has a preference for it to be gallium nitrate MOSFET
    • Help with the firmware development
    Computer Science
    • Firmware development for the SAMD51
    • Software development for parsing and analyzing incoming and outgoing data
    • Encryption and Decryption for communication between the ground server and the Iridium 9523
    • Ground Server software development to communicate the with the Iridium 9523 in Data Mode

ADCS Main Requirements[edit]

  • Research and select the ADCS components
  • Design a driver topology to enable control system growth

    Focus Required Parameters
    Electrical Engineering
    • Cost Benefit Analysis for Coarse and Fine Sun Sensors
    • Cost Benefit Analysis for Magnetometers
    • Cost Benefit Analysis for inertial measurement unit (IMU)
    Mechanical Engineering
    • Cost Benefit Analysis for Torque Rods
    • Cost Benefit Analysis for PCB Magnetorquers
    • Cost Benefit Analysis for Reaction Wheels
    • Selection of components for
    • Modeling and Physics for the ADCS
    Computer Science
    • Research the best control options for the ADCS
    • Develop controls and firmware to manage the selected hardware
    Material Science Engineering
    • Research the best material for ware conditions
    • Radiation shielding for the cube satellite

AI in the Sky Main Requirements[edit]

  • Research and develop an experiment to demonstrate useful machine learning on an active spacecraft
  • Develop software to determine the radiation effects on a running GPU
  • Develop a low bandwidth slow-paced interactive program to demonstrate GPU abilities
  • Design a better carrier for the Nvidia GPU

    Focus Required Parameters
    Computer Science
    • Develop a meaningful experiment to run on-orbit GPU
    • Develop ADCS software interfacing
    • Base firmware to swap active software
    Material Science Engineering
    • Develop Radiation Shielding
    • Research Heat Dissipation through alcohol heat pipes, water pipes, and solid copper in space

Design Considerations[edit]

Low Cost IMU Options[edit]

  • 9-Axis Inertial Navigation Module for Arduino
    • $32
    • Operating Voltage rang: 3-5 V
    • Gyroscopes range: ± 250, 500, 1000, 2000 ° / s
    • Acceleration range: ± 2 ± 4 ± 8 ± 16g
    • Field range: ± 4800uT
  • Sparkfun ICM-20948
    • $17
    • Operating Voltage rang: 1.71-3.6 V
    • Gyroscopes range: ± 250, 500, 1000, 2000 dps
    • Acceleration range: ± 2 ± 4 ± 8 ± 16g
    • Field range: ± 4900uT
    • Includes magnetometer features
  • Adafruit ICM-20948 9-DoF
    • $15
    • Operating Voltage: 1.8-5V
    • Gyroscopes range: ± 250, 500, 1000, 2000 dps
    • Acceleration range: ± 2 ± 4 ± 8 ± 16g
    • Field range: ± 4900uT
  • X-Nucleo-IKS01A2
    • $20
    • Gyroscopes range: ±125/±245/±500/±1000/±2000 dps
    • Acceleration range: ± 2 ± 4 ± 8 ± 16g
    • Magnetometer: ±50 gauss

Project Learning[edit]

Program Protection Standards[edit]

  • 4.1.1 - Command Stack Protection
    • Commands to and from the ground server must be encrypted.
    • Must comply with the Federal Information Processing Standard (FIPS) 140
      • Refers to another document for encryption standards
  • 4.1.2 Backup Command Link Protection
    • A backup command process should be created that overrides command authority in an anomalous condition. This command authority should be encrypted form of authentication.
  • 4.1.3 Command Link Critical Program/Project Information (CPI)
    • encryption, authentication, and CPI protection of hardware commands, key-handling, and bit patterns of critical patterns.
  • 4.2 Ensure Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) Resilience
    • Position, Navigation, and Timing information should be protected as well as the communication path via secure protocols.
  • 4.3.1 Interference Reporting
    • We should report unexplained interference to SAPP or other notifying organizations
  • 4.3.2 Interference Reporting Training
    • Proficiency training to make sure we can detect interference

Final Design[edit]


Team Members[edit]


Grace Rosenvall
Major: Mechanical Engineering
Hometown: Boise, Idaho
Responsibility: Team Manager, SubGroup Lead ACDS


Andrew James Pilchard
Major: Electrical Engineering
Hometown: Moscow, Idaho
Responsibility: Budget Manager

Mark Thompson2020.jpg

Harrison Thomsen
Major: Electrical Engineering
Hometown: Nampa, Idaho


Finan M. Bryan
Major:Mechanical Engineering
Hometown:Coeur D'Alene, Idaho
Responsibility:Primary Client Contact


Lillian Mortensen
Major:Materials Science & Engineering
Hometown: Richland


Joseph Dennison
Major:Computer Engineering
Hometown:Bothell, WA
Responsibility:SubGroup Lead 9523


Robert R Goes
Major:Mathematics and Computer Science
Responsibility:SubGroup Lead AI in the Sky


Taegan Williams
Major:Computer Science
Hometown:Post Falls, ID

Cosette King
Major:Computer Science

Additional Documentation[edit]


File:NASA Design Review Presentation.pdf
File:Snapshot 1TARDIGRADES.pdf