09. Communications

Currently being updated – Available September 1st 2018


The communication system is an essential part of a spacecraft, enabling spacecraft to transmit data and telemetry to Earth, receive commands from Earth, and relay information to one another. A device that both receives and transmits is called a transceiver. In contrast, a transponder essentially uses the same technology as a transceiver, but is also capable of providing ranging information, either between spacecraft or with respect to Earth. Spacecraft-to-spacecraft communications is sometimes referred to as an InterSatellite Link (ISL). Traditionally, communication between Earth and spacecraft is based in the radio spectrum (from about 30 MHz to 40 GHz). The different communication bands as defined by 1 that are typically used for spacecraft include:

  • Very High Frequency (VHF): 30 to 300 MHz
  • Ultra High Frequency (UHF): 300 MHz to 3 GHz
  • L band: 1 to 2 GHz
  • S band: 2 to 4 GHz
  • C band: 4 to 8 GHz
  • X band: 8 to 12 GHz
  • Ku band: 12 to 18 GHz
  • K band: 18 to 27 GHz
  • Ka band: 27 to 40 GHz
  • Optical (Laser Communication): 100 to 800 THz

The radio spectrum used for spacecraft communications is also shown graphically in Figure 9.1.

Radio spectrum used for spacecraft communication
Figure 9.1: Radio spectrum used for spacecraft communication.

While the use of radio frequency (RF) for communications is still the state of the art at the time of this publication, advances have been made in recent years towards using higher carrier frequencies (which generally results in higher data rates), up into the X- through Ka-bands. Higher data rates are more readily achievable with higher frequencies because data rate is proportional to bandwidth used for communication, and bandwidth is more readily available in the higher frequencies. There is currently significant crowding of the lower RF frequencies, especially in S-band from cell phones 2.

Received signal power will decrease as the transmission distance gets larger, thus larger spacecraft on deep space missions almost always use dish antennas because of their ability to focus radio transmissions into a precise directional beam. Thus spacecraft must be able to point accurately. The large physical size and high pointing requirements of a parabolic dish antenna make such an antenna difficult to integrate with a cubesat. Developers have sought alternatives, especially as the attitude determination and control of cubesats gets better (refer to GNC Chapter). For example, an inflatable dish antenna is one proposed solution  3.

GOMSpace UHF deployable (4) monopole antennas for use on cubesats
Figure 9.2: UHF deployable (4) monopole antennas for use on cubesats. Image Courtesy of GOMSpace.
Cubesat-compatible S-band patch antenna.
Figure 9.3: Cubesat-compatible S-band patch antenna. Image Courtesy of IQ Wireless.

Thus far, cubesats have not operated beyond LEO, and this has allowed them to take advantage of (lower gain) whip or patch antennas in their communication systems. Due to their low directionality, these antennas can generally maintain a communication link even when the spacecraft is tumbling, which is advantageous for cubesats lacking accurate pointing control. Whip or tape antennas, such as the one shown in Figure 9.2, are easily deployable from a cubesat and are generally used for VHF and UHF communications. Patch antennas, such as the one shown in Figure 9.3, are small and robust and do not require deployment. They are generally used from UHF through S-band on cubesats, and are being explored for use in X-band arrays on cubesats 4,

and beyond. A key advantage of higher frequency (especially for cubesats) is that antenna aperture decreases but gain remains similar. This is advantageous for ground systems too. One major disadvantage is that higher frequencies get readily absorbed by the atmosphere. In the Ka-band, water droplets heavily attenuate the signal, resulting in “rain fade” so greater transmitting power is required to close the link. However, this does not present a problem for intersatellite links, which do not pass through the atmosphere.

Example of software defined radio, tunable in the range 70 MHz to 6 GHz
Figure 9.4: Example of software defined radio, tunable in the range 70 MHz to 6 GHz. Image Courtesy of GOMSpace.

Another trend that aids in the improvement of RF based communication systems is the development of software defined radio (SDR). By using Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs), SDRs have great flexibility that allows them to be used with multiple bands, filtering and modulation schemes, without much (if any) change to hardware 2. Furthermore, such characteristics can be changed in-flight by uploading new settings from the ground. SDRs are especially attractive for use on cubesats as they can be made increasingly small and efficient as electronics become smaller and require less power (see Figure 9.4). Since 2012, NASA has been operating the Space Communications and Navigation (SCaN) Testbed on the International Space Station, which was created for the purpose of SDR TRL advancement, among other things 5.

Laser based communication (“lasercom”) has already been demonstrated with larger spacecraft such as LADEE 6. The era for lasercom on cubesats is just beginning, with technology demonstration missions planned for 2015 and 2016.

In the following sections, TRL 6+ technology that is relevant to the cubesat form factor is listed in tables organized by operating frequency.

State of the Art


VHF and UHF frequencies are mature bands used for cubesats communication, with several radio developers to choose from. TRL~7 and higher technologies are listed in Table 9.1. Note that Clyde Space’s VUTRX transceiver was developed by F’SATI (the French South African Institute of Technology) at CPUT (Cape Peninsula University of Technology) 7. More information on BitBeam radios can be found in 8, while more information on L3 Communications’ Cadet Radio can be found in 9.

Table 9.1: Developers and Products for use in VHF/UHF
Product Manufacturer Status
Lithium-1 Astronautical Development LLC TRL 9
CSK Phasing Board Astronautical Development LLC TRL 9
BBSDR BitBeam, Inc. TRL 8
BBUHF BitBeam, Inc. TRL 8
VUTRX Clyde Space Ltd. TRL 9
NanoCom AX100 GOMSpace ApS TRL 8
NanoCom ANT430 GOMSpace ApS TRL 9
NanoCom SDR GOMSpace ApS TRL 7
P/N 17100 Haigh-Farr, Inc. TRL 9
Deployable Antenna System for CubeSats ISIS B.V. TRL 9
Cadet L3 Communications, Inc. TRL 9
Figure 9.5: SNaP spacecraft with Haigh-Farr’s deployable UHF Crossed Dipole antenna. Image Courtesy of Haigh Farr, Inc.
Figure 9.6: Example of deployable quadrifilar helical antenna. Image Courtesy of Helical Communication Technologies.

Typically, a small patch antenna (see Figure 9.5) or whip antenna is used to transmit VHF and UHF. Aside from the TRL 9 antennas listed in Table 9.1, other deployable, higher gain antennas (as seen in Figure 9.6) are being developed, including a TRL 6 deployable quadrifilar helical UHF through S-band antenna by Helical Communication Technologies (HCT), and a deployable helical UHF antenna by Northrop Grumman Aerospace System 10.


In L-band, cubesats can take advantage of legacy space communications networks such as GlobalStar and Iridium by using network specific transponders to relay information to and from Earth. An additional advantage is that these networks remove dependence on dedicated groundstation equipment, as discussed further in the GSE section.

Examples of network-specific transponders are shown in Figure 9.8. Note that NearSpaceLaunch’s EyeStar-D2 Satellite Duplex radio has flight heritage, but no large file transfer was possible due to an unplanned 2~rpm spin rate 11. Also, sci_Zone, Inc. is developing its next generation of simplex radio, STX3, as well as a duplex radio. The multiband HCT quadrifilar helical antenna mentioned in the VHF and UHF section can also operate in L-band.

Table 9.2: Developers and Products for use in L-band
Product Manufacturer Status
9602 SBD Iridium Communications, Inc. TRL 9
EyeStar-S2 NearSpace Launch, Inc. (NSL) TRL 9
EyeStar-D2 NearSpace Launch, Inc. (NSL) TRL 8
STX2 Simplex sci_Zone, Inc. TRL 9


Figure 9.7: Cubesat-compatible S-band transmitter, to be used with either amateur or commercial bands. Image Courtesy of Clyde Space Ltd.

Examples of TRL 7+ S-band communication technology are shown in Table 9.3. A cubesat-compatible S-band transmitter is shown in Figure 9.7. Note that the Clyde Space products SANT and STX were developed by F’SATI at CPUT. Haigh-Farr’s S-band antennas are scheduled to fly on the CPOD 3U cubesat mission, scheduled for launch in 2016.

Regarding lower TRL technology, L3 Communications’ Cadet Nanosat Radio (see Table 9.1) is also configurable to be used in S-band, although this has not been demonstrated at the time of publication. LJT & Associates have developed an S-band transponder to work with the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS). The LCT2-b S-band BPSK TDRSS transmitter has already flown on the SOAREX-VI flight experiment 12. Also, Syrlinks develops an S-Band transceiver that has flight heritage, though to the knowledge of the author it has not been flown on a cubesat mission. Similarly, Surrey Satellite Technology US LLC developed an S-band quadrifilar antenna, S-band downlink transmitter, and S-band receiver with flight heritage on spacecraft that are less than 180 kg in mass, though to the knowledge of the author they have not flown on a cubesat mission.

Table 9.3: Manufacturers and Products for use in S-band
Product Manufacturer Status
Beryllium 2 Astronautical Development LLC TRL 9
SANT Clyde Space Ltd. TRL 9
STX Clyde Space Ltd. TRL 9
P/N 3745 Haigh Farr, Inc. TRL 8
P/N 3756 Haigh Farr, Inc. TRL 8
SCR-100 Innoflight, Inc. TRL 9
HISPICO IQ Wireless GmbH TRL 9
SLINK IQ Wireless GmbH TRL 7
CSR-SDR-S/S Vulcan Wireless, Inc. TRL 8

Many antennas are available in S-band, including a stacked patch S-band antenna being developed by NewSpace Systems and the HCT quadrifilar helical antenna mentioned in the VHF and UHF section. AntDevCo, IQ Wireless, Surrey Satellite Technology and many others make S-band patch antennas that could be compatible with cubesats. ISIS B.V. resells the S-band patch antenna, and transmitter and receiver for IQ Wireless’ HISPICO communication system.

The unlicensed ISM (Industrial, Scientific, and Medical) bands have been utilized for cubesat communications as well. Notably, a group at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University used a 2.4-GHz ZigBee radio on its VELOX-I mission to demonstrate that COTS land-based wireless systems can be used for inter-cubesat communication 13. Similarly, there are investigations underway for using wireless COTS products, such as bluetooth-compatible hardware, for intra-satellite communications 14.

Furthermore, companies that traditionally design communications for larger spacecraft are now modifying some of their products for use on smaller spacecraft. One example is the COM DEV S-band transceiver 15.


Figure 9.8: X-band high-gain antenna and pointing mechanism. Image Courtesy of Surrey Space Ltd.

X-band transmitters (such as that in Figure 9.8) have recently become a reality for cubesats because of the advent of commercially available Monolithic Microwave Integrated Circuits (MMICs). There has been much effort recently from industry, universities and government centers alike to develop communications systems at this wavelength 16.

Table 9.4 displays TRL 9 cubesat compatible X-band communication hardware. Note that AntDevCo’s “evolved” wire antennas were designed using X5 Systems’ AntSyn (Antenna Synthesis) software. The corresponding flight heritage (ST5 mission) is not of the cubesat form factor, but each of the five spacecraft were only 25 kg in mass. AntDevCo also develops X-band patch antennas. It should also be noted that Planet Labs uses a proprietary X-band radio 17.

Table 9.4: Manufacturers and Products for use in X-band
Product Manufacturer Status
Evolved X-band wire antennas Antenna Development Corporation, Inc. (AnyDevCo) TRL 9
Quadrifilar Helix Antenna Antenna Development Corporation, Inc. (AnyDevCo) TRL 9
HDR-TM Syrlinks TRL 9

Surrey Satellite Technology developed a high-gain X-band antenna and corresponding pointing mechanism (see Figure 9.8), and an X-band transmitter that have flight heritage on spacecraft less than 180 kg in mass, though to the knowledge of the author have not flown on a cubesat mission. Similarly, Haigh-Farr’s small-satellite-compatible X-band antenna flew on the suborbital SOAREX-8 mission.

JPL has also developed a cubesat compatible transponder for deep space 18, while CU Boulder and Goddard Space Flight Center jointly developed an X-band SDR that is now being sold by Blue Canyon Technologies 4. Lower TRL technologies include an X-band transmitter from NewSpace Systems.


Figure 9.9: Conceptual drawing of laser communication between two cubesats for OCSD mission. Image Courtesy of NASA.

Lasercom for cubesats has yet to become a TRL 9 technology, but it is quickly gaining ground. Already, Aerospace Corporation launched one of three cubesats in its AeroCube Optical Communication and Sensor Demonstration (OCSD) program 19 on October 8, 2015 (see Figure 9.9 20). Also, Fibertek is working on a (currently TRL 6) 6U lasercom system. For both of these ventures, lasers are hosted onboard the cubesat(s). A lower TRL lasercom concept involves an asymmetric optical link, whereby the laser hardware is on Earth and a modulating retroreflector is on the spacecraft (refer to the Asymmetric Lasercom section).

On the Horizon

Ku- to Ka-band

Ku-, K-, and Ka-band communication systems are the state of the art for large spacecraft, especially in spacecraft-to-spacecraft communications, but they are still young technologies in the cubesat world. Developers working on cubesat compatible Ka-band communication systems include Aquila Space, Micro Aerospace Solutions, NewSpace Systems and Tethers Unlimited.

Figure 9.10: Ka-band transmitter with a horn antenna. Image Courtesy of Aquila Space.

Aquila Space already has an operational Ka-band transmitter on two 6U spacecraft; however, the utility of these systems has only been minimally demonstrated and Aquila Space is currently developing the next generation of the product. A Ka-band transmitter is shown in Figure 9.10. Micro Aerospace Solutions has a TRL~5 Ku/Ka-band transceiver with deployable 60 cm cubesat dish antenna 21. Tethers Unlimited has a TRL~5 K-band SDR called SWIFT-KTX.

At the higher frequencies, rain fade becomes a significant problem for communications between a spacecraft and Earth 22. Nonetheless, the benefits have justified further research by both industry and government alike. At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), ISARA (Integrated Solar Array and Reflectarray Antenna) is being developed for use on a 3U cubesat 23. Essentially, the back of the spacecraft’s solar panels are used as a Ka-band antenna reflector. A Ka-band communication system is being developed by JPL for the cubesat Mars Cube One (MarCO) mission 24.

Asymmetric Laser Communications

Figure 9.11: Scheme for using land based laser to transmit data from cubesat using on-board MRR. Image Courtesy of Salas (2012).

Asymmetric laser communication utilizes a remotely generated laser (i.e. does not require an on-board signal carrier) and modulating retroreflector (MRR) to reflect and modulate a laser beam (encoding it with spacecraft data) back to Earth (see Figure 9.11). The laser is located on Earth, where power and volume constraints are not as tight, while the communications payload on the spacecraft requires only a few Watts for operation. SPAWAR is developing this technology using a MEMS based MRR 25, while NASA Ames Research Center is developing a similar capability using a modulating quantum well (MQW) device as the MRR 26.

Transparent Antennas

When deployable solar panels are not an option, a cubesat’s surface is prime real estate for solar cells. One way to maximize exposed surface area on a cubesat is to create communications antennas that are optically transparent. Groups at the University of Houston 27 and Utah State University 28 have developed prototypes of these small, optically transparent antennas.

Intercubesat Communications and Operations

There are multiple advantages to communicating between spacecraft. As cubesat missions become more automated, constellations could exchange information to maintain precise positions without input from the ground. Data can be relayed between spacecraft to increase the coverage from limited ground stations. Finally, intercubesat transponders may very well become a vital element of eventual deep space missions, since cubesats are typically limited in broadcasting power due to their small size and may be better suited to relay information to Earth via a larger, more powerful mothership.

Though transponders are well established in the spacecraft world, networked swarms of cubesats that pass information amongst each other and then eventually to ground have yet to be demonstrated. Developing networked swarms is less of a hardware engineering problem than a systems and software engineering problem, as demonstrated by NASA Ames Research Center’s Edison Demonstration of Smallsat Networks (EDSN) mission 29, see Figure 9.12 30.  Ames’ follow up Nodes cubesat mission is scheduled to deploy from the International Space Station in early 2016.

Figure 9.12: Scheme for inter-cubesat communication for EDSN mission. Image Courtesy of NASA.

Similarly, the Cubesat Proximity Operations Demonstration (CPOD) mission “will demonstrate rendezvous, proximity operations and docking using two 3U cubesats” 31 and is led by Tyvak NanoSatellite Systems, Inc.


There is already strong flight heritage for many UHF/VHF and S-band communication systems for cubesats. Less common but with growing flight heritage are X-band systems. The use of even higher RF frequencies and laser communication already has some flight heritage on cubesats, but with limited (or yet to be demonstrated) performance. Ka-band systems for cubesats are currently in development, but TRL status is still relatively low. On the other hand, laser communication is a spaceflight ready technology that will most likely see increased performance in the near future for onboard laser systems. Alternatively, a few groups are working on asymmetric laser communication, but it is still a relatively low TRL technology.

For technology solicitation, please email: arc-sst-soa@mail.nasa.gov. Please include a business email so someone may contact you further.

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