NASA is pursuing rapid identification, development, and testing of capabilities that exploit small spacecraft platforms and responsive launch capabilities to increase the pace of space exploration, scientific discovery, and the expansion of space commerce in a sustainable manner. These emerging capabilities have the potential to enable new mission architectures, enhance conventional missions, and promote development and deployment on faster timelines. This will, in turn, allow NASA and other space mission operators to achieve their objectives at significantly lower programmatic risk and cost than traditional approaches.
Small spacecraft are typically defined as those weighing 180 kg or less and are often designed for shared launch using standardized form factors and interfaces and containerized deployment (e.g. CubeSats). Small spacecraft and responsive launch capabilities are proving to be disruptive innovations for exploration, discovery, and commercial applications. NASA seeks technical innovations that enable small spacecraft to rival the capabilities of their larger, more expensive counterparts, while also striving to make them lower cost, quicker to build, and easier to launch and operate. In addition, NASA seeks innovations to help address the looming concern of space debris growth in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) following the expected launch of constellations consisting of thousands of satellites, whilst also further expanding the reach of small spacecraft beyond LEO. Greatly improved capabilities are needed for lunar exploration missions, lunar communications and navigation infrastructure as well as, exploration at Mars and other deep space destinations. Technology and capability investment will be needed to meet these upcoming mission needs while keeping overall costs low, mission cadence high, and retaining the agile aerospace approach that has fueled what has been termed the “smallsat revolution”.
Specific improvements required are: novel integrated communications and navigation devices for use well beyond Earth, with improved power management and robust tolerance of the harsher thermal and radiation environment of deep space. Innovations are wanted to increase the speed, economy, and reliability of production; modular designs will facilitate reliable assembly and test of singly- or batch-produced small spacecraft missions. De-orbit or rapid disposal devices for single spacecraft, and autonomous space traffic management technologies for small spacecraft swarms and constellations are also needed. These include affordable powerful computing hardware and intelligent software tools and infrastructure for the autonomous operation of spacecraft or for the cooperation of spacecraft groups, minimizing human-in-the-loop bottlenecks, that are applicable to both the space debris management environment, as well as deep space missions.
NASA’s Small Spacecraft Technology Program will consider promising SBIR technologies for spaceflight demonstration missions and seeks partnerships to accelerate spaceflight testing and commercial infusion.
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: