Detailed Design and Analysis > Subsystem Design >


Scope and Description

This topic page covers the design of communications subsystems for small satellites. This includes design of subsystem components; selection of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components; and integrated design and configuration of the complete subsystem. The communications subsystem enables a spacecraft to exchange data with Earth and other spacecraft for uplink of commands, downlink of housekeeping telemetry and payload data, and crosslink of data that facilitates coordination between spacecraft in a distributed mission architecture. Satellites primarily use radio frequency communications systems; however, recent advances in laser communications terminals and ground station services have made free-space optical links a viable alternative. A diverse array of smallsat RF components (i.e., radios and antennas) are available commercial off-the-shelf (COTS). Reliable and system-oriented design of this subsystem is important because the communications subsystem is often essential to facilitating on-orbit fault recovery; involves high-risk deployables; and drives attitude control, thermal, and power requirements.

Resources in this topic area are primarily website databases of smallsat COTS components and case studies for smallsat communications subsystem design.

Best Practices and Lessons Learned

Last Updated:

Nov. 1, 2021

Consider implementing a simple, bi-level reset signal from your uplink receiver directly to your PMAD electronics to provide a backup reset mechanism in addition to any watchdogs.


Last Updated: Nov. 11, 2021

This article provides detailed information on CubeSat communications and the future direction of research ... in both industry and academia with respect to Internat of Things (IoT) networks. It includes an overview of CubeSat constellations, various communication links, link budget calculations, modulation and coding methods, and application layer protocols for CubeSats.

Last Updated: Nov. 11, 2021

SPOON is an online database of smallsat components such as payloads, flight processors, antennas, propulsion ... systems, equipment for ground stations, and power systems.

Communication Systems


Last Updated: Aug. 30, 2021

The CubeSatShop provides commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) components from verified vendors for small satellites. ... This link directs users to the communication systems page where COTS hardware components can be purchased.

This annual state-of-the-art report from NASA provides "a survey of small spacecraft technologies sourced ... from open literature" with an introduction to each technology, development status and performance metrics for procurable systems, and descriptions of new technologies with reference missions. Section 9 of this report covers communications technologies.

Small-Satellite Laser Communications

White Paper
Aerospace Corporation

Last Updated: Aug. 31, 2021

This slide deck provides an overview of the OCSD (AeroCube-7) and R-Cubed (AeroCube-11) cubesats. Images ... of the communication subsystems are shown as well as the planned relay network with a GEO satellite and ground stations.

Last Updated: Oct. 19, 2021

This article provides a detailed survey of the research being conducted on small satellites with inter-satellite ... communications. Additionally, it discusses the first three levels (i.e. physical, data link, and network) of the Open System Interconnection (OSI) model.

Last Updated: Oct. 19, 2021

SMAD is a practical handbook for space mission engineering covering all aspects of a space system - from ... orbit and constellation design to operations. This chapter on communications discusses the overall communications architecture, data rates, link design, sizing of communications payloads, and special topics related to satellite communications.

Last Updated: Sept. 9, 2021

This article discusses both S- and X-band communication systems used on smallsats, and more specifically ... cubesats. It provides analysis, test results, and direct comparisons between the two communication payload systems.

Last Updated: Oct. 19, 2021

SMAD is a practical handbook for space mission engineering covering all aspects of a space system - from ... orbit and constellation design to operations. This section titled "Telemetry, Tracking, and Command" (TT&C) addresses subsystem requirements and design of the TT&C subsystem.

Last Updated: Nov. 10, 2021

This article provides detailed information on link margin, link optimization, examples, and analysis ... insights. Section 2 discusses link analysis techniques with examples, equations, and figures to provide a brief overview of link analysis.