Some interesting parallels exist in the evolution of the computer and satellite industries. Both initially were dominated by big metal, with mainframes housing the financial records of large corporations and large satellites ruling the sky. But mainframes lost their grip as they proved difficult to program for advanced applications or simply were too expensive for anything other than keeping massive databases. Could the same happen in the satellite field?
Big satellites come with big price tags, which effectively limits the type of organization that can purchase them to governments, militaries, and satellite service providers, but technological advancements are leading to a generation of small satellites that can provide more and more advanced services and open up space to a new generation of users. It was a host of small, nimble companies that prospered after rolling out minicomputers dedicated to running specialized applications, opening the door for the personal computers and servers that came later and the computer market mushroomed. Now the stratification of the satellite industry is picking up speed and, as happened in the computer industry 30 years ago, a new breed of companies are introducing new satellites for specialized applications.
Less is More
There is not a conical definition of what fits into the category of small satellite, but generally it is regarded as any spacecraft with a mass of less than 1,000 kilograms. A taxonomy of sorts has arisen within the small satellite community to help provide some granularity. Cubesats, sometimes called picosats, are limited to 10 centimeters per edge and a total mass of 1 kilogram, while satellites ranging from 25 kilograms to 30 kilograms often are referred to as nanosats. The top end of the small satellite scale generally ends at 1,000 kilograms.
The advent of these smaller spacecraft has broadened the market, says Jeff Foust, senior analyst for Futron Corp. "The market has really expanded over the last 20 years. As costs have come down, satellites are being purchased by a number of diverse organizations. The major uses for small satellites are remote imaging, science, technology demonstration platforms for new space hardware and military or defense purposes. A number of countries have leveraged the availability and cost effectiveness of small satellites to launch national space programs. Non-traditional spacefaring nations now have a way to get their foot in the door when it comes to space."
Historically, small satellites have been used as technology demonstrators, but that is changing, says Todd Mosher, director of advanced systems at MicroSat Systems Inc., wholly owned subsidiary of Sierra Nevada Corp. "A lot of eyes have been opened regarding the capabilities of small satellites," he says, citing a contract Sierra Nevada signed in May to provide 18 small satellites to Orbcomm Inc. for the companies second-generation constellation. The Orbcomm Generation 2 satellites will be based on MicroSat’s work on NASA’s TacSat-2 mission. Each satellite will cost $6.3 million dollars to build and will be equipped with an enhanced communications payload designed to increase subscriber capacity by up to 12 times over the current Orbcomm satellites. The new constellation is expected to be in orbit by 2011. Mosher notes that the rest of the world has embraced small satellites for many years and the United States now is catching up. "The reality is that budget constraints made many countries take a make-do approach and the results were small satellites. Countries not traditionally associated with space now have a way to participate," he says.
"There is a recognition that [small satellites are] not an alternative market to the more traditional large, highly-complex and multifunctional satellites, but it is really complementary to that market, particularly for emerging technology such as demonstrators and early missions."
— Paynter, Astrium
A good example of where small satellites are making a commercial and civil impact is in the imagery arena, and a prime example is the group of countries which jointly own and operate the Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC). Algeria, China, Nigeria, the United Kingdom and Spain each own imagery satellites that can collect imagery with a ground resolution of 32 meters covering a 600-by-600-kilometer swath of Earth. The satellites, each weighing about 90 kilograms, follow the same orbital path so new images of the same spot on the planet are updated multiple times per day. By operating the group of satellites as a constellation, the cost for each supporting member was cut dramatically. While the images primarily are used by the countries that own the satellites, the constellation also provides images to disaster relief organizations, and the imagery has been used for relief efforts following the Indian Ocean Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the recent earthquake in China.
The imaging spacecraft were developed by Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL), which has had 27 of its spacecraft placed in orbit since the company spun out of the University of Surrey in 1981. Paul Brooks, SSTL’s vice president of sales, says the company’s business plan developed as it noticed many traditional satellite programs spiraling out of control in terms of cost. "When a satellite is being designed the owners look for ways to extend its mission. The designers then put more payloads on the spacecraft to deliver more value, but then the cost goes up," he says. "This creates more financial risk which then requires greater assurance that everything will work as planned. The greater assurance lengthens the lead time. You ultimately end up with very large missions and by the time the payload is launched, it is out of date. We noticed that this pattern repeated itself in the satellite industry and, unlike other technology-driven markets, there weren’t huge increases in performance and large decreases in cost. We believe that Moore’s Law should apply to spacecraft as well," he says.
"Because of our quick pace — roughly one launch per year since the company formed — we have a high refresh rate. This allows SSTL to utilize the newest technology in our satellites," says Brooks. "We have a large heritage baseline to draw from, and we never have to start anything from scratch. Seventy to 80 percent of all of our avionics will work on any of our satellites, so we can focus on what is new for a particular mission. Plus we are very highly integrated. We build everything from the boards to the sensors and then do the integration." This approach is reflected in a new generation of imagery spacecraft that will begin joining the DMC constellation later this year. The satellites will carry sharper cameras that collect images with a resolution of 22 meters. "This generation of SSTL DMC satellites will have 10 times the capability of the first generation at the same price only five years after the first generation was launched," says Brooks. "This typifies SSTL’s continuous and rapid development of capability."
This success has attracted the attention of customers — 14 spacecraft are under construction at SSTL — as well as the attention of satellite manufacturer EADS Astrium, which announced in April that it had acquired control of SSTL from the University of Surrey. "SSTL has a substantially complementary product range to ours, which means it enhances our product range as an overall group of companies," says Colin Paynter, CEO of Astrium in the United Kingdom. "... SSTL has a very different approach to the economics of space, which is particularly attractive to us. They build partnerships with what I call emerging nations, those countries who are just getting the idea of having a small satellite or with the universities in those countries getting some space research under way. SSTL has a really good model of working with those countries and delivering small satellites to them. That is a very different approach to Astrium, which has much more commercial, large institutional and major government customers."
Astrium sees small satellites performing complementary roles to larger satellites and also sees today’s small satellite customers becoming buyers of larger satellites in the future. "There is a recognition that small satellites will play an important part in some markets," says Paynter. "There will still be a strong demand for large telecoms satellites and multi-sensor satellites, but small microsatellites can be useful in offering a range of technology demonstrators. They can also add discrete functionality to certain missions by sitting alongside larger satellites. In certain areas, where the functionality could be changing over a three-to-five-year period, a small low-cost platform offers advantages. There is a recognition that it is not an alternative market to the more traditional large, highly-complex and multifunctional satellites, but it is really complementary to that market, particularly for emerging technology such as demonstrators and early missions."