Historically, patch antennas have been used for SmallSat communications. While new antenna technologies are in development, some are not optimized for size, mass, and performance — especially beyond low-Earth orbit (LEO). Engineers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center identified the need for a small form factor antenna to provide high data rate communications for such missions.
NASA’s newly developed antenna is lightweight (at or below 2 grams), low volume (at or below 1.2 cm3), and low stowage thickness (approx. 0.7 mm), all while delivering high performance (at or above 10 dBi gain). The antenna includes a novel design-material combination in a helical coil conformation. The design allows the antenna to compress for stowage (e.g., satellite launch), then self-deploy at the desired time in orbit.
The lightweight, self-deployable helical antenna can be integrated into a thin-film solar array (or other large deployable structures). Integrating antenna elements into deployable structures such as power generation arrays allows spacecraft designers to maximize the inherently limited resources (e.g., mass, volume, surface area) available in a small spacecraft.
When used as a standalone (i.e., single antenna) setup, the invention offers moderate advantages in terms of stowage thickness, volume, and mass. However, in applications that require antenna arrays, these advantages become multiplicative, resulting in the system offering the same or higher data rate performance while possessing a significantly reduced form factor. Prototypes of NASA’s self-deployable, helical antenna have been fabricated in S-band, X-band, and Ka-band, all of which exhibited high performance.
The antenna may find application in SmallSat communications (in deep space and LEO), as well as cases where low mass and stowage volume are valued and high antenna gain is required, such as satellite-based military communications.