FIRST Explorer -- An innovative low-cost passive formation-flying system

Astronomy and Astrophysics – Astrophysics – Instrumentation and Methods for Astrophysics

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Presented at CEAS 2009 European Air & Space Conference - proceedings available for purchase from RAeS .

Scientific paper

Formation-flying studies to date have required continuous and minute corrections of the orbital elements and attitudes of the spacecraft.This increases the complexity, and associated risk, of controlling the formation, which often makes formation-flying studies infeasible for technological and economic reasons. Passive formation-flying is a novel space-flight concept, which offers a remedy to those problems. Spacecraft in a passive formation are allowed to drift and rotate slowly, but by using advanced metrology and statistical modelling methods, their relative positions, velocities, and orientations are determined with very high accuracy. The metrology data is used directly by the payloads to compensate for spacecraft motions in software. The normally very stringent spacecraft control requirements are thereby relaxed, which significantly reduces mission complexity and cost. Space-borne low-frequency radio astronomy has been identified as a key science application for a conceptual pathfinder mission using this novel approach. The mission, called FIRST (Formation-flying sub-Ionospheric Radio astronomy Science and Technology) Explorer, is currently under study by the European Space Agency (ESA). Its objective is to demonstrate passive formation-flying and at the same time perform unique world class science with a very high serendipity factor, by opening a new frequency window to astronomy.

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