March 5, 2024

Understating Small Satellites

Small satellites are becoming increasingly popular as more companies and countries join the new space race. These miniaturized spacecraft are opening access to space for organizations who previously couldn’t afford traditional 100+ kg satellites. While small sats were initially seen as technology demonstrators or spare capacity on larger rocket launches, they are now driving important applications in their own right. This article explores the growth of small satellites and their growing impact.

A New Era of Accessible Spaceflight

Traditional satellites can cost over $100 million to build and launch into orbit. However, the rapid rise of commercial small satellite technologies over the last decade has changed the economics of access to space dramatically. Smallsats under 100 kg can now be built and launched for a fraction of traditional prices, in some cases less than $1 million. This has allowed new players like universities, startups and even high schools to design, build and launch their own satellites.

In 2020, small satellite launches outnumbered traditional large satellite launches for the first time. This trend is expected to accelerate further as rideshare opportunities aboard dedicated small satellite rockets multiply. NewConstellation, a San Francisco based startup, plans to offer frequent dedicated small satellite launches aboard their modular Lambda rocket from their newly constructed spaceport in Alaska. Their goal is weekly access to a variety of orbits for payloads under 150 kg starting in 2023.

Growing Applications

While early small sats were primarily technology demonstrations, they are now powering cutting edge services and innovations. Earth observation small sats can image the entire planet daily at resolutions of 1-3 meters, enabling applications like agricultural monitoring, disaster response and urban planning. Fleets of communications small sats beam broadband internet across geographic blackspots.

On the frontier of space exploration, small satellites play an important role as pathfinders and risk-mitigators before more expensive flagship missions. The Mars Cube One mission proved the viability of CubeSats beyond low Earth orbit, while NASA’s INSPIRE program demonstrates assembly and manufacturing in space using small satellites. Looking ahead, constellations of small satellites could find new asteroids and comets, map the composition of planetary surfaces and even scout destinations ahead of human missions.

National Security and Border Monitoring

Small satellites are also providing strategic advantages to national powers. New spacefaring nations like India, China and Japan are leveraging small satellite constellations for maritime surveillance and border monitoring applications. The U.S. military has accelerated development of small satellite technologies through programs like Blackjack and the Space Development Agency (SDA). Blackjack aims to field proliferated low Earth orbit payloads of 60-100 kg under a single program for communications, SIGINT and missile tracking. SDA hopes to deploy mesh networking constellations that could detect and track hypersonic weapons globally.

Regulatory Hurdles and Orbital Crowding

However, the rapid increase in satellite numbers presents new regulatory challenges. Concerns over orbital debris and radio frequency interference are growing as more organizations join the space domain. Industry groups like the Satellite Industry Association are partnering with the FCC and international bodies to develop best practices around end-of-life disposal, collision avoidance and spectrum coordination.

One unavoidable consequence is that orbits are becoming more crowded. In low Earth orbit (LEO) especially, satellites require much more precise tracking and maneuverability to avoid collision threats. Several close-calls were reported in 2021 between large and small satellites in LEO, underlining the need for improved maneuvering, tracking and communication standards. Looking ahead, nations may choose to set reservation zones in certain orbits for upcoming mega-constellations to prevent traffic jams. International cooperation will also be key to ensure sustainable use of space.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Smallsats have transformed the space industry by lowering access barriers and enabling new critical services. They are opening up the final frontier much as personal computers spread computing worldwide in prior decades. While challenges around regulation, orbital management and sustainability exist, prudent cooperation aims to maximize the benefits of the new space age. If managed responsibly, small satellites could be a democratizing force that unlocks humanity’s full potential in space for decades to come.

*Note:
1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it