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Green Satellites On-the-Go: New Industries Open the Door to the Satellite of the Future

By | March 16, 2015
      Panelists at Monday’s SATELLITE 2015 session, “This is Not Your Grandfather’s Satellite."

      Panelists at Monday’s SATELLITE 2015 session, “Spacecraft Design of the Future: This is Not Your Grandfather’s Satellite.” Photo: Juliet Van Wagenen

      [Via Satellite 03-16-2015] The satellite of the future is closer than you think. According to Jean-Luc Froeliger, vice president of satellite operations and engineering at Intelsat, off-the-shelf, configurable satellites are only a 10-year jump from now. Panelists at Monday’s SATELLITE 2015 session, “This is Not Your Grandfather’s Satellite,” noted that competition and innovation in the industry are picking up rapidly driven by Silicon Valley-type advancements in software and thinking, a smallsat industry that is moving automation rapidly forward, and a launch landscape that is cheaper and more accessible than ever before.

      “Space systems today are mainly single pieces, monolithic, not reusable, not reconfigurable. We believe creating a flexible and modular system for a satellite would help a lot,” said Bernd Sommer, head of automation and robotics at the German Aerospace Center and Space Administration.

      New industries are placing these types of advancements at our fingertips. Smallsat startups are driving these innovations, turning to Silicon Valley’s novel and entrepreneurial mentality and resources to make up for what they lack in capital. Now, with launches only costing hundreds of thousands of dollars as opposed to millions, the small companies can launch more often than ever before, according to Jenny Barna, launch manager at Spire, a nanosatellite startup company. These frequent launches will allow companies, engineers, and developers to test out new hardware, software, and designs in orbit more rapidly than ever before.

      “With the Silicon Valley approach, with the new smallsat launch approach, we can launch every month if we want to and we can iterate our software, iterate our technology … With constant launches we’ll be more like Silicon Valley, with different versions and whatever is the newest and freshest will go up,” said Barna. And to accompany the Silicon Valley mentality is the software to go along with it, which is evolving the smallsat industry as we speak.

      “More and more it’s all about software and innovation,” said Barna, noting that many of her colleagues are software engineers. “That software-driven technology is key.”

      Smallsat startups are driving the market in other ways as well, configuring hardware to fit the needs and resources of small businesses.

      “We’re absolutely seeing the smallsat companies drive automation because they have to,” said Stuart Dautridge, vice president of advanced technology at Kratos Defense and Security Solutions. “If you’re putting up a satellite for a couple hundred thousand dollars you’re not going to have three people man it full time for 10 years — the manning of that satellite would cost more than the whole mission — so they’re driving a lot of automation because of necessity and because of cost. I think you’re going to see that push automation to the larger satellite market as it gets proven out; more standardized and more accepted.”

      Ultimately, the systems are moving to what Sommer calls “Legos in space,” or designs that are highly reconfigurable in orbit. This would increase maintainability through flexible and modular building blocks that would be readily available off-the-shelf as well as customizable. To get there, though, the entire industry will have to work together to develop, understand, and accept the new technology.

      “There is a plethora of new technologies — additive manufacturing being a large one — but it takes time to gain acceptance by many of our manufacturers because of the inherent reliability that they want to build into their systems at their customers’ demand,” said Warren Yasuhara, vice president of space systems at Aerojet Rockedyne, citing electric propulsion, which has been around for 20 years but is just now gaining acceptance in the larger market.

      These new landscapes and designs are taking shape as mentalities change, budding technologies such as electronic propulsion become cheaper and, above all, more accepted.

      Ultimately, no one is sure what the future will bring, but it’s not far off, and already the doors are opening to new designs and ideas.

      “The future, for me, looks like all new constellation architectures. With all the new launch opportunities, particularly with new, dedicated satellite launchers, we’ll be able to have on-demand launches,” said Barna. “When small satellite companies all of the sudden can launch whenever they want to, wherever they want to, I think you’re going to see a whole new evolution of what constellations look like. And because we’re on our dedicated rides and we launch all the time, that will drive the market to come up with all new propulsion and [Attitude Determination and Control] ADCS systems and all kinds of new software and hardware and sensors.”

      With smallsat startups bringing new technology and industry to the table, however, they continue to look to traditional companies for guidance as they forge ahead.

      “New space sits on the shoulders of old space,” said Barna. “We know that.”

      Sustainable Satellites

      With nearly 60,000 objects in orbit, 13,000 of which are in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), being able to configure, reconfigure, maintain, and then de-orbit satellites at will is where companies are focusing their efforts. Sustainable satellites are not only important when it comes to making way to launch spacecraft into LEO, but in lowering costs by keeping current satellites in orbit for longer and making room for innovation and maintenance on spacecraft already in orbit.

      “It’s not enough to just remove space debris. We need to avoid it, and to do that we need to create sustainable spacecraft. And we think a flexible and modular system will help with that,” said Bernd Sommer, head of automation and robotics at the German Aerospace Center and Space Administration.