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Small Spacecraft Technologies


Focus Area 21: Small Spacecraft Technologies


Participating MD(s): SMD


The concept of distributed spacecraft missions (DSM) involves the use of multiple spacecraft to achieve one or more science mission goals. Small distributed spacecraft acting in cooperation can execute science and exploration missions that would be impossible by traditional large spacecraft operating alone, and offer the potential for new concepts in mission design. The goal of this topic is to develop enabling technologies for small spacecraft DSM configurations operating over large distances beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).

The term DSM or “swarm” refers to a group of cooperatively distributed spacecraft, scalable up to 100s of spacecraft, in a specific configuration, which has three distinct characteristics. First, as opposed to a constellation, where spacecraft are distributed across multiple orbits, a DSM is comprised of small spacecraft orbiting relatively close to one another, with intersatellite ranges on the order of tens to hundreds of kilometers.  Second, the DSM requires inter-spacecraft communications where each spacecraft is capable of sharing data and relative position information so that all swarm members are aware of the overall topology. The swarm topology would be dependent on the spatial and temporal distribution, orbit, ground reference, or other requirements of the science mission. Third, the swarm is commanded from the ground as an entity rather than each spacecraft individually. Thus, the swarm has inherent autonomous capabilities to control individual or complete swarm topology redistribution depending or requirements or in response to commands.

Small spacecraft, for the purpose of this solicitation, are defined as those with a mass of 180 kilograms or less and capable of being launched into space as an auxiliary or secondary payload. Small spacecraft are not limited to Earth orbiting satellites but might also include interplanetary spacecraft, planetary re-entry vehicles, and landing craft. 

Specific innovations being sought in this solicitation will be outlined in the subtopic descriptions. Proposed research may focus on development of new technologies but there is particular interest in technologies that are approaching readiness for spaceflight testing.  NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program will consider promising SBIR technologies for spaceflight demonstration missions and seek partnerships to accelerate spaceflight testing and commercial infusion. Some of the features that are desirable for small spacecraft technologies across all system areas are the following:


  • Simple design.
  • High reliability.
  • Tolerant of extreme thermal and/or radiation environments.
  • Low cost or short time to develop.
  • Low cost to procure flight hardware when technology is mature.
  • Small system volume or low mass.
  • Low power consumption in operation.
  • Suitable for rideshare launch opportunities or storage in habitable volumes (minimum hazards).
  • Able to be stored in space for several years prior to use.
  • High performance relative to existing system technology.

The following references discuss some of NASA’s small spacecraft technology activities:


Another useful reference is the Small Spacecraft Technology State of the Art Report at:

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