Workflows, user interfaces, and algorithms for operations of autonomous spacecraft

IEEE Aerospace Conference

Autonomous planning and scheduling is a key enabling technology for future robotic Solar System explorers: as missions venture farther in the Solar System, light-speed delays and low available bandwidth make on-board autonomy increasingly attractive to maximize science returns and enable otherwise-infeasible observations of transient phenomena, e.g. storms on gas giants and plumes on icy worlds. However, ground operations of future autonomous explorers will require a paradigm shift, moving from the current practice of specifying timed sequences of commands to specifying high-level goals that on-board autonomy should elaborate based on the spacecraft’s state and on the sensed environment. In this paper, we explore the problem of adapting ground operations processes, roles, and tools to accommodate on-board planning and scheduling. We design and prototype a framework of user interfaces and algorithmic tools to support uplink and downlink processes of future autonomous spacecraft. The framework’s goals are to allow scientists and engineers to both convey their desired intent to the spacecraft in a format compatible with the on-board planner, and reconstruct and explain the decisions made on-board and their impact on the state of the spacecraft. We assess the performance of the framework through a design simulation where JPL scientists and operators simulate realistic operations of an Ice Giant multi-flyby mission concept, aided by the proposed framework. The design simulation confirms that the proposed approach holds promise to enable operators to interact with on-board autonomy, and suggests a number of recommendations for the next generation of operations tools supporting autonomous spacecraft.