Investigating the value of communication in spacecraft swarms for asteroid prospecting operations
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Communication between spacecraft in deep space is difficult and costly. On the other hand, autonomous missions may behave suboptimally when starved for information. We investigate the balance between communication and efficiency in planned asteroid exploration missions involving multiple cooperating spacecraft. We produce a map over all available transfer windows in a 20 year period from a given initial orbit within the asteroid belt. A swarm of spacecraft is tasked with exploring the asteroid belt via these transfer opportunities, using an evolutionary algorithm to plan its routes. The amount of information available to each spacecraft is varied between no information, occasional aggregated updates and complete information about the plans of the other spacecraft. Comparing the performance of swarms with different amounts of information, we examine the efficiency loss, in terms of scientific return, from limiting their ability to coordinate and conclude that coordination is not necessary under the examined conditions. The sheer size of the asteroid belt, and the wide variety of options means that autonomous spacecraft are unlikely to decide to explore the exact same asteroids. We find that it is not necessary to spend any significant amount of resources on maintaining communication within the swarm. At least, unless the number of target asteroids is significantly reduced compared to the full asteroid belt or a larger number of spacecraft is involved.