Are Smallsats Becoming the “Big Man on Campus” in the Satellite Industry?

New developments in space technology are on the move and not in the way you would expect. In the past, most launch companies have invested their time and money into sending larger spacecraft into orbit.  The primary payload on an average Falcon 9 launch is about 10,000 lbs and can be as large as a school bus. Those launches are expensive, costing tens of millions of dollars all while technology is getting cheaper and smaller.  So while some launch companies are thinking bigger (a requirement if we plan to go to Mars) others are thinking smaller.

The time has come for smaller satellites to have their time in the spotlight. Hundreds of tiny research satellites, known as smallsats (or CubeSats) have been launched on behalf of researchers, universities and even secondary school STEM classes to conduct low-cost research in space.  Smallsats give researchers the luxury of furthering their studies while using satellites that are compact, inexpensive and can be constructed with commercial, off-the-shelf components. However, on current launch vehicles, Smallsats must hitch a ride to space with a much larger satellite. This means they are dependent on the schedule and destination of the primary cargo.

Why Smallsats?

Despite their small size, smallsats have enormous potential. Investment and research is opening the door for new applications for small satellites. These smallsats can be used in groups or “swarms” as they are commonly called. When used in swarms, these satellites act as a network and can simultaneously cover spots in a large area for an extended period. These satellite swarms are also able to capture high-quality images of the Earth faster than ever before, making for improved resource management, defense and intelligence, agriculture, and emergency management. Additionally, smallsats will ensure more reliable communications back to Earth using positioning, real-time broadcasting, and weather. This year, NASA plans to launch two smallsats to collect data on clouds which will help scientists better understand their role in climate and weather. These applications make smallsats important to both commercial and government missions.

Not only are these small satellites helping the aerospace industry, they are also promoting growth in aerospace education for students and researchers from all around the world. Because these nanosatellites are cost-efficient, they can easily be used by larger space programs as well as smaller programs and schools. After watching a flyover of the Space Shuttle Discovery in 2012, students at the St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, Virginia were inspired to be a part of the action. In 2015, all 400 students pre-kindergarten through eighth grade participated in the design, construction, and testing of their own smallsat. The St. Thomas More (STM)Sat-1 is the first smallsat built by elementary school students launched into space.

Companies leading the smallsats race

SpaceWorks, an aerospace engineering company, has also predicted that these smallsats will bring enormous growth to the aerospace industry. According to SpaceWorks’ estimates, we could see more than 400 nano/microsatellite launches annually by 2022.  Reports from Satellite Today show that the market for slightly larger smallsats (1-100 kilogram range) will more than double to reach 375 satellites launched per year and manufacturing and launch revenues are even expected to reach a whopping $7 billion between 2015 and 2025. Speakers at the Satellite 2017 conference agreed that these small satellite companies must first, be able to reach new customers and second, secure more launch opportunities. According to SpaceNews reporter Debra Werner, several companies failed to launch their satellites in 2016 due to launch delays. This resulted in a lack of launch data as well as revenue.  “The launch bottleneck is causing issues… We would have seen faster growth if the launch capacity was there,” said chief executive of Clyde Space, Craig Clark.

Several aerospace startup companies are racing to fill this void. Micro-launcher companies have shown great interest in smallsats and how to send them into orbit. Companies like Astro Digital and Spire will need to depend on launch opportunities as well as reliable launch schedules in order to supply the promised data to their customers.  Spaceport Camden will be able to approve these launches for a variety of different satellites, both large and small.

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