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Communications and Navigation for Distributed Small Spacecraft Beyond Low Earth Orbit (LEO)


Scope Title:

Integrated Deep Space Navigation and Communications

Scope Description:

Communications and navigation technologies for small spacecraft beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) will be required by spacecraft to conduct NASA lunar and deep space distributed spacecraft science missions. Innovations in communications technologies for distributed small spacecraft are essential to fulfill the envisioned science missions within the decadal surveys and contribute to the success of human exploration missions, including construction of the lunar communications architecture [Ref. 12]. Primary applications include data relay from lunar surface to surface, data relay to Earth, and navigational aids to surface and orbiting users. Considerations for technology and capability extension to the martian domain and other deep space applications are also solicited. Distributing these capabilities across multiple small satellites may be necessary because of limited size, weight, and power (SWaP), but also to enhance coverage. 

NASA is seeking efforts to develop relative and absolute navigation systems and technologies that are integrated with the small spacecraft’s communication system. Depending on the integration approach, the navigation system may share radio-frequency (RF) or optical components, digital processing components, and/or a distributed implementation across the small satellite cluster. Synergies should allow for a significant reduction in SWaP when compared to each SmallSat employing an independent navigation system. Having situational awareness allows for autonomous control of small spacecraft as well as determining and maintaining position within a swarm or constellation of small spacecraft. In addition, timing distribution solutions for the SmallSats are important. Earth-independent and Global Positioning System (GPS)-independent navigation and timing are enabling capabilities required by spacecraft to conduct NASA lunar and deep space distributed spacecraft science missions. Innovations in navigation technologies for distributed small spacecraft are essential to fulfill the science missions envisioned and contribute to the success of Artemis human exploration missions.

Multiple small spacecraft operating in coordinated orbital geometries or performing relative stationkeeping can further expand human knowledge deeper into the universe by performing coordinated occultation, acting as virtual telescopes, and forming distributed apertures that would be prohibitively complex and expensive to launch into space as monolithic structures. Small-spacecraft formation flight can also enable swarm gravimetry, synchronized observation of transient phenomena, and proximity operations for inspection of other assets. Realizing these capabilities on affordable small spacecraft requires navigation systems that are low in mass, volume, power consumption, and cost.

Further expansion of small spacecraft use into deep space requires highly accurate position knowledge and precision timing that does not depend on GPS or other Earth-centric aids. Exploration mission operations that involve multiple-element distributed-mission architectures may involve 30 to 100 spacecraft, and the general expansion of the number of cislunar and deep space missions will stress or exceed current capacity of the Deep Space Network (DSN). Access to DSN ranging may not be available for multiple concurrent missions, may be blocked by terrain for surface operations, or may be limited by the radio capabilities of smaller missions. In concert with other available signals of opportunity and landed beacons, small spacecraft can provide relative ranging or triangulation to aid lunar navigation. Knowledge at the spacecraft of relative (between-spacecraft) situational awareness is needed for real-time stationkeeping/relative position control where required rapid reaction speeds preclude human-in-the-loop operation.

Future small-spacecraft missions will need to autonomously determine and transmit relative and absolute position as well as keep and exchange precise timing. These capabilities are required for small spacecraft to act as infrastructure for other missions and for distributed missions composed of small spacecraft beyond Earth. Navigation technologies and techniques may include inertial navigation combined with enhanced visual navigation capabilities (e.g., dual use of star-tracking instruments for relative navigation using surface features or other nearby spacecraft), x-ray emissions (from pulsars), and laser rangefinding to other spacecraft or surface landmarks. For use with small spacecraft, these systems must be compatible with the inherent size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C) constraints of the platforms.

Precise timekeeping and timing exchange is not only required for navigation but is fundamental to science data collection. Internetworked small spacecraft can help synchronize timing across multiple mission assets using an external timing source. Improvements in chip-scale atomic clocks that can be carried by the small spacecraft themselves can augment this capability to reduce the accumulation of errors over time or serve as the primary clock when other larger but more accurate reference sources are not available or feasible. Most current commercial interests and Government missions operate in near-Earth orbits. To date, both NASA and the commercial spaceflight industry have enjoyed strong investment in near-Earth situational awareness made possible by tracking and identification capabilities provided by the Department of Defense. As the number of cislunar missions grows and NASA encourages the development of the lunar service economy, similar investments in situational awareness capabilities in these new orbital regimes will be needed to help support NASA and commercial operations.

Primary applications include navigational aids to lunar surface and orbiting users. Distributing these capabilities across multiple SmallSats may be necessary because of limited SWaP, but also to enhance coverage. Technologies for specific lunar architecture are especially needed, but considerations of extension to the martian domain are also solicited. Navigation solutions for deep space distributed spacecraft missions (DSMs) may be addressed via hardware or software solutions or a combination thereof.

Solutions can operate anywhere in the electromagnetic spectrum; however, considerations must be given to bandwidth, public and Government licensing, network and data security, and compatibility with referenced candidate architectures.

Expected TRL or TRL Range at completion of the Project: 2 to 5

Primary Technology Taxonomy:

  • Level 1 17 Guidance, Navigation, and Control (GN&C)
  • Level 2 17.2 Navigation Technologies

Desired Deliverables of Phase I and Phase II:

  • Prototype
  • Software
  • Hardware

Desired Deliverables Description:

Phase I: Identify and explore options for the deep space navigation technology; conduct trade analysis and simulations; define operating concepts; and provide justification for proposed techniques, frequency bands of operation, command and data handling, and networking solutions. Also identify, evaluate, and develop design for integrated navigation payload(s) and one or more constituent technologies that enable distributed spacecraft operations in the relevant space environment beyond LEO. Integrated navigation system solutions and constituent component deliverables should offer potential advantages over the state of the art, demonstrate technical feasibility, and show a path toward a hardware/software infusion into practice. Bench-level or laboratory-environment-level demonstrations or simulations are desirable. The Phase I proposal should outline a path that shows how the technology can be developed into space-qualifiable and commercially available small-spacecraft communications payloads through Phase II efforts and beyond.

Phase II: Demonstration of navigation technology via prototype or high-fidelity emulation. The relevant deep space environment parameters should be simulated as much as possible. 

State of the Art and Critical Gaps:

Science measurements of DSMs are based on temporal and spatially distributed measurements where position knowledge and control are fundamental to the science interpretation. Current space navigation technologies are not adequate when relative or absolute position knowledge of multiple spacecraft is involved. State of the art (SOA) for attitude is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's ASTERIA (Arcsecond Space Telescope Enabling Research in Astrophysics) 6U CubeSat demonstrated pointing stability of 0.5 arcsec (0.1 microdeg) rms over 20 min using guide stars. For position knowledge, missions still primarily use ranging transponders relying on a two-way Earth link, with the Iris transponder being SOA. Global navigation satellite services like the United States' Global Positioning System (GPS) provide very limited services beyond geostationary Earth orbit distances, and no practical services in deep space. Additional SOA information is found in Reference 10. Autonomous navigation capabilities are fundamental to DSMs to ensure known topography of the configuration at the time of data acquisition. Control of the distributed configuration requires robust absolute and relative position knowledge of each spacecraft within the configuration and the ability to control spacecraft position and movement according to mission needs.  

Critical areas for advancement are:

  • Long-term, high-accuracy attitude determination: In particular, low-SWaP absolute attitude determination using star trackers, etc., to achieve sub-arcsec accuracy.
  • Other novel navigation methods: Stellar navigation aids, such as navigation via quasars, x-rays, and pulsars, may provide enabling capabilities in deep space.
  • Surface-based navigation aids, such as systems detecting radio beacons or landmarks, are invited. Emerging quantum-based technologies are of high interest.
  • Methods for autonomous position control are also of interest. Technologies that accomplish autonomous relative orbit control among the spacecraft are invited. Control may be accomplished as part of an integrated system that includes one or more of the measurement techniques described above. Of particular interest are autonomous control solutions that do not require operator commanding for individual spacecraft. That is, control solutions should accept as input swarm-level constraints and parameters and provide control for individual spacecraft. Opportunities for innovation include the application of optimization techniques that are feasible for small-satellite platforms and do not assume particular orbit eccentricities. SOA in this area is the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE), the first spacecraft to attempt to navigate to and maintain a near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon as a precursor for Gateway [Ref. 8]. NASA is also partnering with universities for use of surface-feature-based navigation and timing [Ref. 9].

NOTE: Small-spacecraft propulsion technologies are not included in this subtopic.

Relevance / Science Traceability:

Space communications and position knowledge and control are enabling capabilities required by spacecraft to conduct all NASA missions. The DSM concept involves the use of multiple spacecraft to achieve one or more science mission goals.

Several missions are being planned to conduct investigations/observations in the cislunar region and beyond. For example, Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS); human exploration (Artemis) landing site and resource surveys; and communications and navigation infrastructure, including LunaNet, Mars communications relay, etc. All of these missions will benefit from improved communications and navigation capabilities.


[1] International Communication System Interoperability Standard (ICSIS):

[2] Interagency Operations Advisory Group (IOAG):

[3] Space Communication Architecture Working Group (SCAWG) (2006) NASA Space Communication and Navigation Architecture Recommendations for 2005-2030:

[4] National Telecommunications and Information Administration Frequency Allocation Chart:

[5] National Telecommunications and Information Administration Tables of Frequency Allocations:

[6] NASA Spectrum Policy and Guidance for Small Satellite Missions:

[7] NASA Space Communications and Navigation:

[8] Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE):

[9] On-Orbit Demonstration of Surface Feature-Based Navigation and Timing:

[10] State of the Art Small Spacecraft Technology Report:

[11] Potential Program Users:

[12]  LunaNet:

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