Dollars & Sense: Small Satellites: Government And Military Procurement

In our June column, we reviewed the history and status of small satellites, generally considered to be those weighing less than 500 kilograms when fully fueled, from the commercial side. The other area in which small satellites will play a growing role is governmental civil and military use.

Under the 500-kilogram umbrella, a few subcategories are developing. Microsatellites may refer to those weighing less than 100 kilograms; nanosatellites are those weighing 10 kilograms or less and picosatellites can weigh less than 5 kilograms. The lighter categories, likely to be used for extremely specific missions, may offer opportunities to drastically reduce launch expenses and, as costs for such satellites will be far lower, insurance costs, decisions to self-insure, acceptance of launch and in-orbit risk, bus and payload reliability and redundancy, and other factors of satellite economics may all be in play in ways unheard of in the multi-ton geostationary satellite service world.

Just as an example, current launch costs of $10,000 to $20,000 per kilogram may fall to the $3,000-to-$6,000 range for some platforms under some estimations.

The growing role of government and military procurement of satellite hardware and services is a boon and a problem for the industry. While government and military orders are a growth sector and may be lucrative and provide welcome deployment of manufacturing and bandwidth resources, coping with bidding parameters and procedure, procurement regulations, and lopsided leverage is difficult for satellite services and equipment suppliers. The questions of whether bidders on government contracts are playing on a level field, and what recourse they have if that turns out not to be the case, become serious when responding to a request for proposals or a bid that is itself a major investment of company resources.

The small satellites themselves are being developed to fill a variety of roles, some more traditional, such as weather, navigation, Earth observation and imaging, remote sensing, and communications; some less so, such as monitoring and in-orbit satellite refueling, servicing and repair, and espionage. Anti-satellite weapons, while not officially acknowledged and at best controversial as a matter of international law, clearly are being investigated. Countries developing small satellite military systems include the United States, Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Japan and several of the European Union countries, notably Germany, France and Italy. Some programs are intended to be dual use civil and military, others are purely military.

In the United States, for example, the U.S. Air Force is developing the Experimental Satellite Series, or XSS, and the Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technology, or DART, in-orbit satellite servicing capability. The technology requires ultra-precision maneuvering ability for acquisition of the target spacecraft, approach to within 90 meters, and in some cases, actual rendezvous and joint orbital maneuvers. The technology may well have anti-satellite applications as well. Another program, the Orbital Express Space Operations Architecture program, is an attempt to develop an unmanned, in-orbit satellite refueling and mission reconfiguration capability for both governmental civil and military and commercial applications.

Many of the governmental and military small satellite projects are low-Earth orbit (LEO) spacecraft. While operating in lower, faster LEO orbits, these systems do not provide as much, or continuous, coverage of a given area on Earth as does a geosynchronous orbit. LEO provides natural advantages for surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering.

New imaging and slewing technologies allow satellites to extend their coverage of a given point on Earth, and the technical ability of a LEO constellation to maintain coverage of a single point on the ground by passing a signal from satellite to satellite is improving. The small satellite philosophy also matches up with LEO spacecraft, since it is less expensive to reach LEO than geosynchronous orbit.

In short, government and military procurement is accelerating the development of small satellite technology both for single- and dual-use applications, some traditional, some revolutionary. Government demands also are accelerating the development of small satellites as a LEO application. As we said in June, large, fixed satellite service GEO satellites are here to stay, but the development of small satellites is an exciting growth area.

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