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Small Spacecraft Technology
Big ideas in small packages!
Program Objectives

The Small Spacecraft Technology Program has three primary objectives:
  1. Identify and support the development of new subsystem technologies to enhance or expand the capabilities of small spacecraft. The program seeks to develop subsystem technologies that are new and revolutionary in their impact, rather than incremental improvements of existing subsystems. The goal is to advance subsystem technologies from a readiness level of 3 (Analytical and experimental critical function and/or characteristic proof of concept) to a readiness level of 5 (Component and/or breadboard validation in relevant environment).  
  2. Support flight demonstrations of new technologies, capabilities and applications for small spacecraft. The program seeks to demonstrate technologies that are new and capabilities that have not previously been demonstrated in space. The goal is to advance technologies and capabilities from a readiness level of 5 (Component and/or breadboard validation in relevant environment) to a readiness level of at least 7 (System prototype demonstration in an operational environment).  
  3. Use small spacecraft as platforms for testing and demonstrating technologies and capabilities that might have applications in spacecraft and systems of any size. The program seeks to contribute to the full range of NASA’s science and technology challenges, where initial demonstrations with small spacecraft can reduce the cost, risk, complexity or time required to advance the state-of-the-art.
All efforts will focus on technologies and capabilities that are relevant to NASA’s missions in science, exploration, space operations and aeronautics including those with crosscutting applications for NASA and other users.

This purpose of the program is to develop new technologies and demonstrate new capabilities but not to perform operational missions with small spacecraft. However, the program will work closely with operational flight and science research organizations to identify advanced technology needs and potential new applications. Planning for infusion of new technologies and capabilities into operational spacecraft and missions will be an important factor in project selection and implementation.

Recognizing that a vibrant small spacecraft community already exists and includes participants from industry, academia and other government agencies, this NASA program will direct its efforts in complimentary directions that take advantage of NASA’s unique capabilities and assets. The field of small spacecraft technology offers compelling opportunities for NASA to contribute to:
  • Expansion of business and economic opportunities
  • Involvement of students and academic institutions
  • Inter-agency coordination
  • International cooperation
  • Public engagement and education in science and technology
Beyond the primary objectives of technology development and demonstration, the program will also promote the concept of small spacecraft as a paradigm shift for NASA and the larger space community. Specifically:
  • Encourage operational flight and science research organizations to consider the potential of small spacecraft to perform missions or investigate phenomena not possible with existing instruments and spacecraft.
  • Highlight the opportunities presented by small spacecraft, because of their size and low-cost, to:
    • enable more rapid, agile, and aggressive technology development programs with lower cost and schedule risk,
    • provide younger engineers with flight project experience,
    • engage students in flight projects,
    • expand opportunities for small businesses and for research teams with very limited resources
    • seek new sources of components, technologies and techniques from outside the traditional aerospace industry
    • employ multiple types of secondary payload launch providers and hosted payload opportunities
    Where possible, encourage the application of experiences from small spacecraft development more generally in NASA programs as a means to stimulate more rapid, agile and risk-tolerant development and to broaden the portion of the workforce that can be directly involved in creating and operating space systems.
What is a Small Spacecraft?

The definition is arbitrary but this program considers small spacecraft to be those with a mass of less than 180 kilograms. Some commonly accepted terms used for small spacecraft are the following:
  • Minisatellite, 100 kilograms or higher
  • Microsatellite, 10-100 kilograms
  • Nanosatellite, 1-10 kilograms
  • Picosatellite, 0.01-1 kilograms
  • Femtosatellite, 0.001-0.01 kilograms
Cubesats are one type of small spacecraft that weigh only a few kilograms and are built in a standard frame that is a 10 centimeter cube. Cubesats can be composed of a single cube (1U) or several cubes combined.

cubesat graph