Other universities are launching mini-satellites. What could you do? Perhaps you could launch a startup like Spire or Planet labs




NASA Selections


SB131-008 TITLE: Fractionated Picosats

TECHNOLOGY AREAS: Sensors, Space Platforms

OBJECTIVE: Develop and demonstrate a fractionated picosat (100 g - 1 kg) platform capable of participating in an existing System F6 fractionated satellite cluster and leveraging cluster resources to command, manage, package, and deliver Earth imagery data to the ground.

DESCRIPTION: Picosatellites (100 g - 1 kg) have been considered as a responsive and low-cost spacecraft platform; however, their utility is limited. The usefulness of picosats may be dramatically increased if they are able to coordinate with each other and participate in a System F6 satellite cluster. Such coordination would enable resources such as communication, computation, and navigation to be shared, minimizing the component complexity of any single spacecraft. Further, given the availability of an existing cluster, the marginal cost and complexity of space missions that traditionally require a conventional spacecraft (e.g., imager payloads) can be reduced to a level that is readily accommodated by a picosat.

DARPA’s System F6 program plans to launch an on-orbit testbed in 2015 to demonstrate the key enabling technologies of fractionation. The program will provide the enabling standards, software, and four satellite platforms to host shared resources that may be leveraged by additional space missions. These resources include 1) a 24/7 persistent communication link between the cluster and any Internet-connected node on the ground, 2) a high-speed space-to-ground downlink, 3) a high-speed computing element, and 4) high-capacity memory storage devices.

The intent of this SBIR is development of innovative picosats capable of hosting an Earth-imaging payload and leveraging the F6 demonstration cluster and architecture to command, manage, package, and deliver Earth imagery data to the ground. The picosat should be capable of communicating with the demonstration cluster and participating in cluster flight navigation. All standards and software necessary to interface with the on-orbit cluster will be provided by DARPA. This includes the Layer 1 and 2 standards and software for inter-module communications (either 802.11g or Ka-Band TDMA), an application development kit needed to develop the picosat mission payload application that is executed on the cluster, and the cluster flight behaviors, algorithms, and reference implementation software. (The picosat platform should be capable of exchanging cluster flight navigation data, but is not required to participate in station-keeping and scatter/re-gather maneuvers).

The picosat should maximize mission utility while minimizing size, weight, and power requirements by substituting components, subsystems, and functions traditionally needed to support a spacecraft mission payload (e.g., command and data handling, attitude control, telemetry). These capabilities should be delivered by leveraging resources in the cluster and managed through a mission payload application on the cluster. The picosat should deliver at least one image of the Earth with recognizable features (e.g., coastlines) within the expected 6-month duration of the mission. No ground station support will be provided – solutions should utilize the space-to-ground links and computational resources to process and deliver the image to a specified Internet-connected computing node on the ground. Space access will be provided, but as a variety of rideshare opportunities are still being considered, the exact orbit and launch configuration are not currently available. Altitude is expected to be between 300 and 1500 km.

PHASE I: Develop a conceptual design of a fractionated Earth-imaging picosat. Phase 1 deliverables include:

• Preliminary Design Review with documentation of all design decisions, performance analyses, trade studies, schematics, size, weight, and power estimates, interface specifications, software architecture

• Software development plan

• Verification and validation plan

• Preliminary CONOPS - Description of the operational concept including how the picosat will interface with the System F6 on-orbit demonstration cluster, and how the Earth-imaging mission will be conducted

PHASE II: In Phase II, the SBIR performer will develop, demonstrate, and validate a prototype picosat and associated ground support systems and procedures. Phase II deliverables include:

• Critical Design Review with detailed documentation of the final design highlighting all changes since the Preliminary Design Review; identification of major components in the flight system including hardware components, software functions, verification and validation plans, ground support, and operational procedures

• Updated CONOPS

• Demonstration of all functional objectives on a prototype breadboard and associated software in simulated but representative orbital configurations

PHASE III: In Phase III, the SBIR performer will develop, demonstrate, and validate a flight-ready picosat and associated ground support systems and procedures. The Phase III product should fulfill Transition Readiness Level 6 (TRL6) objectives. Phase III deliverables include:

• Flight Readiness Review with detailed documentation of the final design, flight qualification test results, and end-to-end system interfaces and procedures demonstrating system readiness for launch and on-orbit operation

• Updated and final CONOPS

• Demonstration of all functional objectives on a flight-ready picosat in simulated but representative orbital configurations

Fractionated picosats are expected to have a number of relevant scientific, military, and commercial applications including space environment monitoring, space and Earth imaging, communications, and surveillance.

Inexpensive fractionated picosats will provide scientific and commercial stakeholders with enhanced system adaptability and survivability, while shortening development timelines and reducing the barrier-to-entry for participation in the space industry.

These picosats are expected to further extend the applicability of spacecraft fractionation, enabling development of enhanced cluster components, resources, and applications.


1) Hinkley, D. and Janson, S., “Building Miniature Spacecraft at The Aerospace Corporation,” Crosslink, Summer 2009,

2) "Picosat." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 22 July 2004. Web. 18 June. 2012.

KEYWORDS: Picosat, Cubesat, FemtoSat, System F6, Payload, Earth-Imager

None: CubeSats (last edited 2014-11-13 03:40:15 by DuncanCarlsmith)