With operational small satellite constellations scaling fast, and regulatory controls for sustainability quickly emerging, Benchmark Space Systems today announced the commercial launch of the first-ever driver assist control system capable of managing highly precise satellite maneuvers and travel through increasingly congested space.
The category-defining propulsion solution called SmartAIM™ (Smart Advanced In-Space Mobility) features an onboard software control solution embedded in Benchmark’s non-toxic chemical, electric and hybrid propulsion systems. Having a more intelligent and integrated mobility solution extends the guidance, navigation, and control (GNC) capability of any spacecraft to offer unprecedented tiers of autonomous flight – ranging from assisted ‘cruise control’ for station keeping and payload pointing to full-blown maneuver planning and execution for collision avoidance.
SmartAIM™ is now available in Benchmark’s common control system across product lines and will reduce operational costs and lead times associated with mission planning and system integration.
Benchmark also announced a strategic partnership with Kayhan Space to integrate the company’s Pathfinder spaceflight safety service with the SmartAIM™ platform. Pathfinder’s capabilities for optimized maneuver planning and autonomous space traffic coordination provide a unique and complementary offering when paired with Benchmark’s SmartAIM™ propulsion solution. This alliance will ultimately drive the full value of SmartAIM™ for collision avoidance and sustainable space operations. Benchmark plans to add Kayhan and other SSA companies to its extensive network of partners with complementary technology and services.
Benchmark has designed, developed, and thoroughly tested its SmartAIM™ intelligent propulsion offering, in part with funding and R&D support from the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL), and expects the first SmartAIM™-assisted flights to launch in 2024. The cooperative effort among Benchmark’s commercial and government partners has focused on eliminating the laborious, iterative manual satellite control functions, which have become cost prohibitive and unmanageable for many operators as their constellations dramatically scale.
“The Low Earth Orbit ecosystem is not sustainable without driver assist technologies like SmartAIM™. Benchmark is in full production mode on propulsion systems for several government and commercial missions. Operators are not just looking to Benchmark to provide propulsion hardware, but a full life cycle partnership and innovative bundled mobility solutions to maneuver safely and confidently through space,” explained Chris Carella, Chief Commercial Officer for Benchmark Space Systems. “Large constellations aren’t technically or economically feasible in today’s busy orbits if they’re being controlled with traditional manual and multi-step procedures. SmartAIM™ makes watching over constellations of dozens to hundreds of satellites far more manageable and sustainable. The operational equivalent of falling asleep at the wheel could lead to a Kessler scenario that wipes out a trillion-dollar global infrastructure.”
Benchmark’s SmartAIM™ intelligent guidance, navigation and control solution runs on multiple streams of real-time data, from onboard sensors and data relays, that provide vivid situational awareness. The low-latency information feeds and onboard processing include the state of the propulsion system and satellite, where it’s been, where it’s headed, and efficient travel routes around potential issues or threats nearby or on the horizon.
“The game-changing benefits of having SmartAIM™ tightly integrated with Benchmark’s propulsion systems, the host spacecraft resources, and additional effectors, aids in scalability, performance efficiency and sustainability, and operator peace of mind,” outlined Jeff Gibson, Benchmark’s Head of Engineering and a member of its experienced GNC team, with lunar lander, EVTOL, and guided munitions development among its storied successes.
“Operators can lean on Benchmark’s unrivaled propulsion expertise and not get bogged down with the technical details needed for scalable mobility operations in space,” Gibson added. “The efficiency of the driver-assist and autopilot modes enable operators to get a lot more mileage out of their propulsion systems – driving up mission sustainability while reducing overhead.”
“The Kayhan Space mission is all about empowering satellite operators with the information and streamlined autonomous capabilities they need to safely and efficiently navigate through an increasingly congested space environment,” said Siamak Hesar, Co-Founder and CEO of Kayhan Space. “We are thrilled to partner with Benchmark Space Systems and integrate with their SmartAIM™ intelligent propulsion solution to maximize safe and sustainable space operations.”
The company expects the first SmartAIM™ systems to launch next year, beginning with collision avoidance and station keeping capabilities in space. The company’s technology roadmap includes next-generation features, which include advanced operator-assist and autopilot functions, in the late 2024 through 2025 timeframe.
Established propulsion providers are at an advantage when developing GNC capabilities. The integration goes beyond hypotheticals and is designed with the detailed specificities of existing avionics and propulsion systems for maximum optimization. By working in unison with additional effectors like momentum wheels, torque rods, and ACS thrusters – the GNC framework is designed for optimizing each maneuver, whether that be for power conditions, fuel preservation, or speed.
The company is laser focused on providing non-toxic chemical, electric and hybrid propulsion systems capable of enabling in-space mobility and the emerging space economy. Benchmark is currently fulfilling contracts for dozens of its new Xantus electric metal plasma thrusters (MPTs), with some on the verge of playing a key role in upcoming in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM) satellite docking demonstration missions.
The company is also producing hundreds of its 2N Lynx bi-propellant (HTP + fuel) thrusters this year to meet increasing demand for low Earth orbit (LEO) and cislunar missions. The intelligent maneuver control enabled by SmartAIM™ is being considered by a growing number of missions and operators deploying Benchmark thrusters and propulsion systems.