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The Bright Future of Small Satellite Technology

By | August 1, 2011

      With more and more countries around the world looking to develop a space based capability, but wanting to do it on a budget, it has never been a better time to be a small satellite manufacturer. Here, we look at international developments in the small satellite market, and why countries all the way from Nigeria to Kazakhstan have become believers in small satellites.

      Most industry observers would argue that big remains beautiful in satellite manufacturing, especially for commercial applications in mobile satellite telephony and broadcasting. At the same time, however, operating needs and budget pressures facing government, military and civil users are pushing many of them towards small satellite platforms.

      Add the wonders of miniaturization of electronics witnessed in recent years and the picture is complete — the success enjoyed by satellite manufacturers such as Orbital Sciences with its Star Bus spacecraft for Geostationary Orbit (GEO) is a clear example of how small satellites are emerging as crucial tools in a renewed global space race. An increasing number of countries joining the league of space-faring nations through programs focused on the development, manufacturing and launch of small spacecraft.

      “Over the last few years, we have seen countries not just wanting to use space applications, but also intending to understand the technology behind them,” says Werner Balogh, a program officer for the Basic Space Technology Initiative program of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). “In this sense, small satellites programs are of paramount importance for capacity-building in space technology development in these countries.”

      Commercial demand and government-driven programs are energizing this market segment, however, the evolution of demand for small satellites depends on how you define small satellite over time, says Rachel Villain, director for space at Euroconsult. “Based on our studies, adding the backlog of small satellites currently in construction to the 274 units that have been launched over the past decade gives us a total of 352 satellites over 15 years. This is around 23 units per year, with the definition of small satellites as launch mass of between 10 and 500 kilos, destined for any orbit.”

      Villain’s figure excludes the three Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations Orbcomm, Gonets and the first Globalstar generation, which would together add another 100 spacecraft to the total. When confronted with these numbers, one could make an observation that activity around small satellites has remained strong in recent years. But, it is even more interesting to see who is commissioning these satellites.

      According to Euroconsult, most small satellites are built for government clients including the academic world. “Over three quarters of the 352 small satellites launched and to be launched are requested by the civilian and military agencies of various governments around the world,” says Villain. “When small satellites built by academic institutions are added, the total grows to 91 percent with only 9 percent left for commercial companies.”

      As to where demand is coming from, the United States is the dominant force in this sector, with a 30 percent share due to high-demand from NASA and the Department of Defence (DoD). Europe enjoys a 25 percent share, while Asia follows suit with 22 percent thanks to activity in China and Japan. Russia has a 13 percent share of the market, while the Middle East and Africa (MENA) tops 9 percent and the rest of the world follows with 5 percent.

      “It is interesting to observe how the Middle East and Northern Africa is emerging as a region of interest for small satellites, while Latin America remains a limited market,” says Villain.

      There are certain applications that seem commonly well suited to small satellites: in-orbit technology demonstration and testing; Earth observation; and space science. Together, these three examples dominate 80 percent of the application environment, portraying a clear indication of an increasing number of countries entering space.

      “Many countries use small satellite programs to qualify and demonstrate their technology and engineering capability, often through academic institutions,” says Villain. “For example, in Saudi Arabia the Space Research Institute of the KACST (King Abdulaziz City for Science & Technology) builds two series of satellites — the SaudiSats and SaudiComsats.”

      Through this approach, countries are aiming to qualify basic space capabilities to build more powerful satellites in the future. For example, the first generation of 10-kilogram Saudisats were designed to provide store-and-forward communications and carry out space experiments. The 200-kilogram Saudisat 3, on the other hand, is reported to be equipped with a payload dedicated to Earth observation. Technology and Earth observation applications for small satellites seem to enjoy the strongest growth historically, while communication remains a small segment. Science also is a small segment, remaining concentrated to a limited number of countries.

      More than 90 percent of small satellites are sent to a LEO orbital location. Most of these go in non-Sun Synchronous Orbit (non-SSO) missions, though growth in SSO is being witnessed. “Strong growth of SSO satellites is due to the multiplication of Earth observation missions for countries already active, for example, the United States, Israel and Europe, or for emerging countries,” says Villain.

      Traditionally, satellite manufacturing has been the domain of a handful of large aerospace companies from technologically advanced countries and regions such as the United States and Europe. Small satellites, however, are bringing about major changes to this world order, as an increasing number of developing countries are entering the space sector.

      “In the past, satellite technology was an extremely specialized field,” says Balogh. “Today’s micro- and nano-sats make heavy use of off-the-shelf components that are also used in consumer technology. Engineering knowledge and work experience gained in small satellite programs is therefore often directly transferable to other technology fields.”

      This is also having the effect of widening the pool of manufacturers and creating opportunities for emerging companies. Smaller satellite manufacturers such as theUnited Kingdom’s Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), now a subsidiary of EADS Astrium, and Germany’s Orbitale Hochtechnologie Bremen (OHB) are leading the way.

      “We see a growing demand at the ‘top end’ of the small satellite product range where customers are procuring small satellites for operational reasons to do missions that in the past would have been the domain of large satellites,” says Phil Davies, SSTL’s business development and sales manager. “For example, take very high-resolution imaging satellites such as those that can image at one meter or better resolution. In the past, these would typically cost several hundreds of millions of dollars. Due to the massive improvements in technology over recent years this class of mission is now capable of being performed by small satellites such as the SSTL-300 series for tens of millions of dollars.”

      The other massive growth area is that of very small satellites — nanosats and cubesats. While the capability of these satellites is still generally below what is needed for most operational missions, they can be implemented at an extremely low-cost and are becoming widespread for educational missions, says Davies. Opportunities for these satellites are coming from regions such as South America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa, with countries like Nigeria and Algeria leading the way in Africa — areas without long standing space programs. “This summer Nigeria will launch its second and third Earth observation missions, which have been built in collaboration with SSTL and are designed to deliver information to help Nigeria manage its resources, improve its agriculture and map the country, as well as providing a platform for the development of a high-tech and high-value indigenous skill base,” says Davies.

      In July 2010, SSTL started building a small satellite for the Republic of Kazakhstan to provide medium resolution, multi-spectral EO capability to complement the high-resolution satellite built by EADS Astrium. Germany’s OHB is also making significant inroads in the small satellite market, with programs like the SAR-Lupe for the German Armed Forces. Under its lead management, OHB is developing a European Small Geostationary (SGEO) platform for communications applications to be marketed commercially under the name Luxor. OHB is acting as contractor general for the project, which last year was estimated to be worth 566 million euros ($811.65 million). OHB will provide the satellite platforms, while SSTL will supply the payloads for the satellites. The launch of the first two satellites is scheduled for the end of 2012. 

      Satellites Moving Up

      Small satellites are once again playing a crucial role in promoting access to space and satellite applications for developing countries, according to Balogh.

      “The desire to close the gap between countries with space capabilities and those that did not have access to space applications and technology was addressed in 1971 with the establishment of the UN program of space applications. In 2007, we came up with the Basic Space Technology Initiative to fulfil our mandate with capacity building in member states that desire to establish basic space technology development capabilities,” he says.

      On the satellite side, more and more mission types are being developed to provide support to valuable applications, opening opportunities for instrument builders, subsystem suppliers and other supply chain elements. The road to space through small satellites, however, is not completely smooth. Factors such as launch costs, debris creation and competition from hosted payloads applications, are also to be considered across the whole satellite value chain. Cost-effective launches remain important, as small satellites are still penalised in comparison to larger platforms when it comes to launch costs per kilogram of mass.“The main trend we see in imaging missions is the ever increasing demand for very high resolution data — the world’s appetite for such data seems to be growing exponentially. We also see small satellites moving into other areas which have been the domain of larger satellites until recently, for example, radar missions can now be supported through small satellite solutions such as the SSTL NovaSAR (synthetic aperture radar) system,” says Davies.

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