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ConOps Planning and Autonomy

Scope and Description

This topic covers concept of operations (ConOps) planning for spacecraft, including plans for autonomous behavior on-orbit. In many cases, the ConOps refers to a very high-level, stakeholder oriented graphic statement of plans for operation of the system - with a particular focus on how the operational system will be used to meet the goals of its end-users. In this knowledge base, we use ConOps more broadly to capture both high-level and detailed plans for operations that are prepared for various purposes/audiences. ConOps planning is an important factor, especially for smallsat missions, where the cost of highly manual or complex operational schemes is generally not practical. ConOps plans that incorporate autonomy (on the ground or on-orbit) can enhance responsiveness to faults, collision probabilities, payload measurements, and other factors. This responsiveness can, in turn, improve reliability, performance, and cost-effectiveness of the mission.

Resources under this topic area are primarily articles and white papers on smallsat mission planning and autonomy.

Best Practices and Lessons Learned

  • Smallsat missions are particularly constrained, not just in size, but also in budget and schedule. The ConOps provides numerous design variables to adjust and buy back design margins without substantial engineering effort (e.g., reduce time in payload operations to increase power margin). In many cases, all that is needed to make a change is to update the flight software or plans for manual commanding/scheduling of the spacecraft.
  • Many smallsats use commercial off-the-shelf electronic components that significantly increase the chances of single event effects (SEEs). Consider incorporating autonomous, regular (e.g., once per-orbit) resets of your entire spacecraft or sensitive subsystems to clear faults.
  • Downlink transmitters are often one of the highest-power systems on a smallsat, and modern instruments are able to collect very large amounts of data (e.g., high resolution imagery). If possible given your instrument and mission, consider reducing downlink volume by incorporating autonomy into your flight software that can discard low-value or redundant measurements.
  • Always include a "phoenix mode" in your ConOps for recovery from a fault condition (e.g., a dead battery). This mode typically involves activating the minimum about of systems while pointing for maximum power generation until conditions are met for a return to nominal operations (e.g., the battery reaches 95% state-of-charge).


White Paper

This document provides a detailed overview of mission planning and scheduling for spacecraft operations. ... It provides standards, concepts, use-cases, and guidance for mission planning both on-orbit and on the ground.

This journal article provides an overview of the Ten-Koh smallsat developed by Kyutech students for space ... weather research. Section 2.5 details the concept of operations (ConOps) designed for the smallsat mission, and Section 2.6 describes the satellite operational modes and conditions that determine the active operational mode.

This paper provides an overview of a 6U cubesat performing space-based space situational awareness (SSA) ... tasks. The general mission concept of operations (ConOps) from launch to deorbit is discussed, as well as a more detailed ConOps during the science phase of the mission.

White Paper
Arizona State University

This website outlines the entire concept of operations (ConOps) of the Phoenix 3U cubesat mission from ... launch to deorbit. It details the satellite's operational modes after deployment, including an idle mode, science mode, downlink, and safe mode.

White Paper

This section in the Systems Engineering Guide, called Concept of Operations, discusses the purpose, methodology, ... and objectives of a mission's concept of operations (ConOps). This document provides high-level, systems engineering-focused, information on developing a ConOps document.

Christopher Rouff

This article discusses the importance and growing prevalence of autonomous spacecraft systems. The author ... provides evidence for implementation of autonomous capabilities to improve smallsat mission reliability, efficiency, and performance.

Systems Engineering for University-level Engineering is a video series covering systems engineering products ... and techniques and how to apply them to projects. Lesson 8, titled "Concept of Operations", provides an introduction to the processes and techniques for developing a successful ConOps plan.

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