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Mission Architecture Design

Scope and Description

This topic covers the conceptual design of all high-level elements of a smallsat mission. This includes payload, spacecraft bus, launch system, orbit, ground system, and mission operations. The trade space in which to architect a satellite mission can be huge. This is especially true for smallsats which, compared to traditional space missions, can more readily take advantage of innovative technologies, commercial components, and distributed architectures. The goal of mission architecture design is to pare down this large trade space, evaluate alternative mission concepts, and arrive at a mission architecture that satisfies mission requirements with minimal cost, schedule, and risk of failure.

Resources in this topic area are primarily traditional mission design references and case studies for specific smallsat missions - occasionally presented alongside novel methodologies for smallsat mission architecture design. Note that because this in an overarching task involving every element of a given mission, completing it may require you to reference content from throughout this knowledge base.

Best Practices and Lessons Learned

  • Smallsats lend themselves to distributed architectures - constellations, precision formations, or swarms that can provide larger effective apertures and improved resilience, coverage, or revisit times. The number of satellites, how they are distributed in orbit, and manner in which they are deployed (all at once, in batches, or individually) are all connected to mission performance and mission confidence; therefore, these factors should be considered in mission architecture design.
  • The lack of process requirements typically flowed to smallsat missions means that the reliability level of each mission element should enter the mission architecture trade space (e.g. do we deploy one very reliable satellite or four less reliable satellites for the same cost and schedule).
  • Make sure to clearly define and maintain a current version of mission success criteria. This should be a brief list of the high-level objectives of the mission. All programmatic and technical decisions should be driven by and measured against these mission success criteria.
  • Every mission requirement and it's method of validation and verification should be documented and tracked. This is very important - even for smallsats - and should not be ignored to save time or budget.
  • Make sure to include the concept of operations (ConOps) planning in mission architecture design. The ConOps can significantly influence mission performance.


This conference paper presents analyses regarding the value of smallsat science constellations and how ... functional design elements of these missions can allow teams to "do more with less." These analyses are presented in the context of a specific mission: the GEOScan system sensor suite: a 1W, 1kg, $1M per-unit hosted payload for the Iridium NEXT constellation. Note that the focus of this paper is almost exclusively on the GEOScan system; therefore, this resource provides value not as a general reference but as a quality example and case-study for conceptual design of a smallsat science constellation.

INCOSE et al.

The purpose of this wiki website is "to provide a widely accepted, community-based, and regularly updated ... baseline of systems engineering (SE) knowledge." This is an in-depth and comprehensive guide on systems engineering. While it is not space or smallsat focused, this is a good learning tool or reference for smallsat engineers.

This chapter covers "the initial process of selecting and defining a space mission." The process is presented ... in detail and includes flow diagrams, tables, definitions of key terms, and an instructive example. Note that this resource is not smallsat-specific and should be considered along with other smallsat-specific resources to develop an approach that is appropriate for the cost and schedule constraints of your mission.

This conference paper presents what the authors describe as the "most useful of roughly 100 methods, ... processes, technologies, and programs for achieving dramatic reductions in space mission cost." This guidance is broken down into nine categories: Attitude, Personnel, Programmatic, Government/Customer, Systems Engineering, Mission, Launch, Spacecraft Technology, and Operations. The tables presented throughout this article allow for quick access to the key takeaways from each section.

This section is titled "Small Satellites and Mission Architectures" and covers the various options for ... distributing sensors in orbit and the cost-effectiveness of smallsat architectures. It does not go into detail regarding mission architecture design but provides well-reasoned, high-level points and guidance with references to previous missions.

Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay et al.

This survey covers 39 formation flying or constellation small-satellite missions, categorized by mission ... type. Overall statistics and findings are presented, and each mission is briefly described. This survey could be used by smallsat formation or constellation mission designers to find similar missions. These mission designers could follow the references provided for each mission of interest for further details that might influence their project.

This conference paper presents a constraint-based mission planning model for a forest fire monitoring ... smallsat constellation. It does not go into significant detail but does provide a concise technical description of the numerical methods and artificial intelligence concepts applied to the problem of smallsat mission architecture design. Their overall approach and methods could conceivably be applied to any mission architecture design.

This conference paper presents a useful smallsat mission preliminary design. Of value to a general smallsat ... audience are the sections on constellation design, responsiveness, spacecraft sizing, launch vehicle, and cost estimation. This paper does not go into significant technical detail; however, it can serve as a useful case-study and addresses several high-level design details that should be considered by smallsat conceptual design teams.

David J. Barnhart et al.

This journal paper introduces and presents quantitative evidence for the value of exceptionally small ... satellites (<1kg) for distributed space missions. This is a valuable reference for missions where a relatively small, low power, low data-rate payload allows conceptual designers to aggressively trade between spacecraft size and satellite quantity in the formation or constellation.

This paper presents a "methodology to integrate the deployment of constellations of smallsats into the ... wider design process for these systems." An optimization scheme based on a genetic algorithm is presented in detail and applied to three case studies. Two of these case studies are based on already launched systems, and the third is a notional smallsat mission. This paper is valuable both for its conceptual design optimization techniques and its focus on including deployment scheme in the design-space.

Chen Zhang et al.

This article presents a useful case study in LEO smallsat imaging constellation design. The objective ... of the mission described in this paper is to image a set of targets using a minimal number of satellites while meeting a maximum revisit time constraint. Numerical methods are used to construct and select from a database of candidate orbits. The overall process and models/methods described in this paper could be useful for the design of a smallsat constellation - especially one with a similar mission and constraints.

John Hrastar

This conference presentation contains an extensive discussion of requirements. It includes requirements ... definition, management/change, verification, and validation.

Defense Acquisition University

This web page provides a concise, high-level overview of architecture design. Note that the content presented ... here is not specific to space systems, but it nonetheless provides potentially valuable information for smallsat developers. In addition to content presented on this page, it includes links to relevant training courses, documents, and other web pages on the DAU website.

Defense Acquisition University

This web page provides a concise, high-level overview of requirements management. Note that the content ... presented here is not specific to space systems, but it nonetheless provides potentially valuable information for smallsat developers. In addition to its own content, this web page includes links to relevant training courses, documents, and other web pages on the DAU website.

This educational course document provides a concise introduction to space mission architectures. It defines ... "architecture", provides an overview of the communities that use space systems, and describes a set of common "classes of space systems."

Matthew R Capella et al.

This conference paper presents a method for evaluating and selecting from a set of candidate satellite ... constellation architectures. A reference mission is used to demonstrate each element of this method and to select from three combinations of spacecraft size and constellation size. Each candidate architecture is evaluated based on design/performance, mission assurance, and resilience.

This appendix provides a smallsat mass budget document example.

This introductory article outlines the basic concepts and processes involved in developing cubesats. ... Even if you have experience in the development of cubesats, this is still a great resource that covers a broad spectrum of the cubesat development process. Chapter 2 provides details on concept development, mission coordination, and mission planning.

Systems Engineering for University-level Engineering is a video series covering systems engineering products ... and techniques and how to apply them to projects. Lesson 9, titled "Using Trade Studies to Make Systems Decisions", discusses what trade studies are and how they are used to make effective decisions throughout the project life-cycle.

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