|Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle
|EELV Secondary Payload Adapter
|Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology Satellite
|Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer
|Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite
|NASA Online Directives Information System
|Small Spacecraft Technology
|Space Technology Mission Directorate
|Technology Maturity Assessment
|Technology Readiness Level
The objective of this report is to assess and provide an overview of the state of the art in small spacecraft technologies for mission designers, project managers, technologists, and students, connecting current small spacecraft missions to available technologies. This report focuses on the spacecraft system in its entirety, provides current best practices for integration, and then presents the state of the art for each specific spacecraft subsystem. Certain chapters have a particular emphasis on CubeSat platforms, as nanosatellite applications have expanded due to their high market growth in recent years.
This report is funded by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). It was first commissioned by the Small Spacecraft Technology (SST) program within NASA’s STMD in mid-2013 in response to the rapid growth in interest in using small spacecraft for low-Earth orbit, low-cost missions. The report was subsequently updated in 2015, 2018, 2020, 2021, and 2022 to capture smallsat technology growth and maturation. In addition to reporting currently available state-of-the-art technologies that have achieved TRL 5 or above, a prognosis is provided describing technologies as “on the horizon” if they are being considered for future application.
The SmallSat mission timeline began at NASA Ames Research Center with the launch of Pioneer 10 and 11 that launched in March 1972 and April 1973, respectively, where both spacecraft weighed < 600 kg. To address the increase in mass and associated cost with the high launch cadence, NASA initiated the Small Explorer (SMEX) program in 1988 to encourage the development of small spacecraft with masses in the range of ~60–350 kg. In 1998, Ames’ SmallSat program then focused on lunar exploration and launched Lunar Prospector (< 700 kg), followed by the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS), (< 630 kg) in 2009, and the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), (~380 kg) which was launched in September 2013. In late 2010, NASA launched its first minisatellite called Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology Satellite (FASTSAT), which had a launch mass ~180 kg. This decrease in spacecraft mass, reduced overall cost, and increase in science capabilities ignited interest in miniaturization and maturity of aerospace technologies which have proven to be capable of producing more complex missions for less cost.
The Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA) payloads provided up to 180 kg mass allocation to six payload slots in 2012 when this report was first being written. As this report is focused on smaller platforms, the “180 kg mass limit” served as a good indicator to further classify the maximum “SmallSat” mass. SmallSats are generally grouped according to their mass, and this report adopts the following five small spacecraft mass categories (1):
- minisatellites are spacecraft with a total mass of 100 – 180 kg;
- microsatellites have a total spacecraft mass of 10-100 kg;
- nanosatellites have a total mass of 1 – 10 kg;
- picosatellites have a mass of 1 – 0.01 kg; and
- femtosatellites have a total spacecraft mass 0.01 – 0.09 kg.
Figure 1.1 offers examples of the various categorized spacecraft. On the lower mass end, there are projects such as KickSat-2, which deployed 100-centimeter (cm) scale “ChipSat” spacecraft, or Sprites, from a 2U femtosatellite deployer in March 2019. These femtosatellite ChipSats are the size of a large postage stamp and have a mass below 10 grams.
In 1999, a collaboration between California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) in San Luis Obispo and Stanford University in Stanford, California, developed a small educational platform called a “CubeSat” which was designed for space exploration and research for academic purposes. CubeSats are now a common form of small spacecraft that can weigh only a few kilograms and are based on a form factor of a 10 cm square cube, or unit (U) (1). The original CubeSat was composed of a single cube, a 1U, and it is now common to combine multiple cubes to form, for instance, 3U or 6U units as shown in figure 1.2. These larger CubeSat sizes have become more standardized and popular in the past five years as much more science can be achieved at less cost with the additional volume, power, and overall increase in capability.
It is common to interchange the terms “CubeSat” and “NanoSat” (short for nanosatellite) as the original 1-3U CubeSat platforms fall under the nanosatellite category. Since the physical expansion of CubeSats in 2014 with the 6U form factor, CubeSats now fall into both nanosatellite and microsatellite categories, and this report refers to a nanosatellite as a spacecraft with mass under 10 kg; a microsatellite as a spacecraft with mass greater than 10 kg; and a CubeSat as the accepted form factor. Figure 1.3 illustrates the three smaller SmallSat categories: microsatellites, nanosatellites, and picosatellites.
While “state-of-the-art” may be defined as the most recent development stage of technology, this report considers NASA’s Technology Readiness Level (TRL) scale (figure 1.4) when assessing SmallSat technology. A technology may be deemed state-of-the-art whenever its TRL is larger than or equal to 5. A TRL of 5 indicates that the component and/or brassboard with realistic support elements was built and operated for validation in a relevant environment so as to demonstrate overall performance in critical areas. Success criteria include documented test performance demonstrating agreement with analytical predictions and documented definition of scaling requirements. Performance predictions are made for subsequent development phases (2).
An accurate TRL assessment requires a high degree of technical knowledge on a subject device, and an in-depth understanding of the mission (including interfaces and environment) on which the device was flown. TRL values vary depending on design factors for a specific technology. For example, differences in TRL assessment based on the operating environment may result from mechanical loads, mission duration, the thermal environment, or radiation exposure. The authors believe TRLs are most accurately determined when assessed within the context of a program’s unique requirements. If a technology has flown on a mission without success, or without providing valid confirmation to the operator, such claimed “flight heritage” is discounted. Some older technologies may still be well suited to certain mission needs and still be regarded as “state-of-the-art.” For a technology to be considered obsolete, “retired”, or no longer “state-of-the-art”, it’s performance must have been surpassed by newer technology such that it is no longer used.
While a technology with a TRL value lower than or equal to 4 may not be state of the art, in some cases these technologies may considered “on the horizon.” A TRL of 4 is defined as a component and/or breadboard validated in a laboratory environment with documented test performance demonstrating agreement with analytical predictions and a documented definition of the relevant environment. These promising technologies may soon be considered state-of-the-art for small spacecraft.
NASA standard TRL requirements for this report edition are stated in the NPR 7123.1C, Appendix E, which is effective through February 14, 2025. The criteria for selection of appropriate TRL are described in the NASA Systems Engineering Handbook 6105 Rev 2 Appendix G: Technology Assessment/Insertion. Please refer to the NASA Online Directives Information System (NODIS) website https://nodis3.gsfc.nasa.gov/ for NPR documentation. The following paragraphs in sections 1.3.1 and 1.3.2 of this introduction are excerpts from the NASA Engineering Handbook 6105 Rev 2 (pp. 252 – 254). They highlight important aspects of NASA TRL guidelines in hopes of eliminating confusion on terminology and heritage systems.
“At first glance, the TRL descriptions in figure 1.4 appear to be straightforward. It is in the process of trying to assign levels that problems arise. A primary cause of difficulty is in terminology, e.g., everyone knows what a breadboard is, but not everyone has the same definition. Also, what is a “relevant environment?” What is relevant to one application may or may not be relevant to another. Many of these terms originated in various branches of engineering and had, at the time, very specific meanings to that particular field. They have since become commonly used throughout the engineering field and often acquire differences in meaning from discipline to discipline, some differences subtle, some not so subtle. “Breadboard,” for example, comes from electrical engineering where the original use referred to checking out the functional design of an electrical circuit by populating a “breadboard” with components to verify that the design operated as anticipated. Other terms come from mechanical engineering, referring primarily to units that are subjected to different levels of stress under testing, e.g., qualification, protoflight, and flight units. The first step in developing a uniform TRL assessment (see figure 1.5) is to define the terms used. It is extremely important to develop and use a consistent set of definitions over the course of the program/project.”
1.3.2 Heritage Systems
“Note the second box particularly refers to heritage systems (figure 1.5). If the architecture and the environment have changed, then the TRL decreases to TRL 5—at least initially. Additional testing may need to be done for heritage systems for the new use or new environment. If in subsequent analysis the new environment is sufficiently close to the old environment or the new architecture is sufficiently close to the old architecture, then the resulting evaluation could be TRL 6 or 7, but the most important thing to realize is that it is no longer at TRL 9. Applying this process at the system level and then proceeding to lower levels of subsystems and components identifies those elements that require development and sets the stage for the subsequent phase, determining the new TRL.”
- NASA. What are SmallSats and CubeSats? February 26, 2015. Revised August 6, 2017.
- NASA Systems Engineering Handbook. NASA/SP-2016 6105 Rev. 2.