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SGAC@SpaceWatchGL Op’Ed: Small Satellites Everywhere, for Everything, Forever?

Six SSL-built small satellites for Planet’s Earth observation constellation have arrived at Vandenberg AFB for launch. Image courtesy of SSL.

The small satellite phenomenon continues to gather momentum, but is this something we can count on lasting well into the future? Is the smallsat here to stay? Stephen Ennis of the Small Satellite Project Group at the Space Generation Advisory Council gives his perspective on this fascinating question.

From within our industry, the small satellite world appears to be booming. The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is breaking records delivering over one hundred smallsats in a single year. New players such as Oman, the Virgin Islands, Azerbaijan, Guatemala, Ghana and Sri Lanka are entering the space game using smallsats. The global smallsat industry is developing some heavy hitters, as well as numerous hungry start-ups. We need look no further than Planet Labs, Spire Global, Rocket Lab, ICEYE, Vector and Fleet to name just a few. A new smallsat company seems to appear daily and strong players just get stronger. Seriously, things are moving in an exciting direction, up, into orbit. But, how much of this excitement is the bias of smallsat lovers? Growth can’t last forever; so are smallsats a destination or are they just a step on the road to something … bigger?

Predictions of the future of the smallsat world are cheap. Speculation upon speculation. The truth is, we have never been here before. There are no obvious predictors or benchmarks that we can compare to. It is exciting and we might be clouded by bias but, here are some reasons why we think it’s safe to be excited, very excited. Smallsats may be here to stay.

Young the Game, Youth the Name

The whole NewSpace movement is strong in the ways of the young. Reduced launch costs, open sourcing and commercial-off-the-shelf solutions have made it possible to get into the space business with less experience and riskier ideas whilst still managing to find funding. The fact that a starting a space-based venture is not just a move for the brave, rich and crazy talented of us is great news across the board. Of course, this also plays a role in smallsat world.

There is a story being told on a global level, and it is a truly happy one. Researchers gather a team of post-docs, PhD candidates, graduates and maybe even, if they are very brave, undergraduates. For the most part, these are youngsters. Let’s say under 35 (to pick a random age). Good research happens. Papers are written and delivered at a growing number of smallsat focused events around the world. Then, something magical: part of the team does the technology transfer thing and starts a company. This happens because building, launching and operating smallsats is no longer in chapters of fairytales. They hire not just STEM graduates, but designers, communicators and business analysts. They take on interns. The start-up is young, vibrant, ambitious. This is happening all over the world, and it is the next generation that is making it happen.

The Launcher Less Travelled

A huge reason that a smallsat business is no longer a niche, crazy idea is that getting the satellite past the big open sky into an orbit is no longer hugely expensive. There are a whole series of articles that could be written about SpaceX, Ariane, Rocket Lab, ISRO, Vector, SNC, and others. Let’s just say that there is some serious ‘traditional’ satellite money and time being invested into smallsat launchers. People who understand risk and investment are making bets on these vehicles. That’s a good sign and it’s a terribly important one too. Smallsats are making their way into LEO and beyond not just as after-thought secondary payloads, but as first class citizens.

JAXA recently broke the record for the smallest launch vehicle to make it orbit. It has been designed to carry small items, maybe even satellites in the future.

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Smallsat technology continues to advance. In classic smartphone fashion, the geniuses of the world are taking the old, the big, the heavy and the power hungry and somehow creating new, small, light and efficient things. Miniaturisation is awesome, but it’s only half the story. The other half, and maybe the more important half, is that this new awesome smallsat technology is appearing, for purchase, in online stores. Especially in the CubeSat realm, one can select and purchase everything needed to make a beautiful little space traveller; all without picking up the phone or leaving the office. The obvious reference here is Clyde Space, if you don’t know them, Google them, they sell magical things.

There is a constructive feedback loop at play here. Universities and space agencies are seeing increasing benefit in pursing smallsat activities. This creates a market for cost effective rides to orbit. This improves the business case for smallsat ventures and NewSpace companies begin to appear. With the increase in smallsats are being manufactured, there’s an opportunity to mass produce components. Cheaper components enable more university, business and small agency activities. And that, ladies and gentlemen, looks like the birth of an industry.

To return to the beginning – from within, things look good. There are some compelling signs that this is not a fad. Who knows, perhaps we’re missing something. Ask some informed non-believers for their opinions. We would, but we’re busy making big things happen with little spacecraft.

Stephen Ennis is a member of the Small Satellite Project Group at the Space Generation Advisory Council.

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