Astronauts fired this small, rectangular hunk from the International Space Station today. The payload will separate into two autonomous satellites as part of a research program to take us one tiny step closer towards making asteroid mining a reality.

If we ever want to mine asteroids, we’re going to need to step up our game for multiple satellites sharing data and working together. A pair of Texan universities are working together on a four-mission sequence to create a pair of robots that can autonomously rendezvous and dock in space. The project is called Low Earth Orbiting Navigation Experiment for Spacecraft Testing Autonomous Rendezvous and Docking — or Lonestar if you ignore the D.

Lonestar freshly released from the space station. Image credit: NASA/ESA/Tim Peake

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Lonestar is actually two satellites disguised as one—AggieSat4 built at Texas A&M University, and BEVO-2 built at University of Texas. AggieSat4 is the bigger satellite, and will spit out BEVO-2 once the pair are in their own orbit free of the station. They’ll be testing communications and positioning.

Once separated, they’ll cross-link their communications and start swapping data. Each will hook into existing GPS networks to determine their locations, then start up a transmission to ground radio stations. This will improve our understanding of cross-linking communications between satellites and ground control. The mission will also improve our understanding of how well the global positioning system works in orbit, which is part of a bigger problem on how to efficiently navigate in deep space.

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Lonestar was carried to the space station as part of the Orbital’s fourth cargo run. It was ejected from the station on the Japanese kinetic launcher.

[NASA]

Top image: The Lonestar satellite package being released from on January 28, 2016. Credit: NASA/ESA/Tim Peake. Correction: This article originally stated that Lonestar caught a lift on fifth SpaceX cargo run; thank you to Parker Francis for writing in to update us that due to payload changes it actually rode to the station on Cygnus’ return-to-flight mission instead.


Contact the author at mika.mckinnon@io9.com or follow her at @MikaMcKinnon.