Latest News

A Look Back at Smallsats’ Challenges and Opportunities

By Peter J. Brown | August 10, 2017

      It was all smallsats this week at the Small Satellite Conference in Utah. However, the conversations about smallsats’ place in our industry has been going on for quite a while. And this 2006 article from our archives is proof. Back then we talked to ESA, Orbital, Surrey Satellite, Ball Aerospace, and more, about the growing impact small satellites were beginning to have in the commercial industry, as well as the challenges and opportunities these spacecraft faced 11 years ago.
      This article was originally published in December 2006.


      Big satellites are the workhorses of the satellite industry, but smaller spacecraft are performing more and more missions as a growing number of customers are finding that small satellites are rugged, affordable and can perform many jobs.

      According to Luca Maresi, a systems engineer at European Space Agency’s (ESA) European Space Research and Technology Center, a growing number of large institutional players such as ESA, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the French space agency, CNES, are using small satellites not only as technology demonstrators but also for operations. “In the early 1990s, small satellites were mainly designed and built by universities and research centers for experiments and to demonstrate satellite in-flight capabilities. Most of these experiments ended with a single flight without any significant follow-on activities,” says Maresi, who also co-chairs the biannual Small Satellite Systems and Services Symposium, which gathered 150 experts from more than 70 companies and research institutes in Sardinia in September.

      Small satellites traditionally have been the domain of researchers and universities, but it is the geosynchronous market that has seen the most significant shift in the demand. Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. has provided its Star-2 small geosynchronous spacecraft for customers such as Optus Networks of Australia, PT Telekomunikasi Indonesia and the former Panamsat, and as recently as April announced a contract to provide a platform to France’s Alcatel Alenia Space, which is providing the AMC-21 satellite for New Jersey-based SES Americom.

      “Throughout the past five years, Orbital’s most visible successes have come in the commercial market, with the Star platform becoming the dominant small satellite for commercial satellite operators,” says Ali Atia, senior vice president of Geo Satellites for Orbital. “As a percentage of the company’s overall revenue, commercial satellites now make up about a third of Orbital’s projected 2006 revenues of almost $800 million. That is up from approximately 10 percent of a smaller revenue base just five years ago.”

      Orbital is under contract to build and deliver 16 additional satellites and 12 major subsystems throughout the next three years, says Atia, who attributes this strong growth in the in the commercial communications sector to the fact that satellite operators are seeking a better balance between available capacity and customer demand than existed at the beginning of the decade. “They have learned that a large, expensive, high-powered satellite is not always the right answer for their fleet plan. Often, an established operator needs incremental capacity to augment its fleet rather than the large amount of capacity that a large satellite would add,” says Atia. “Satellite operators have become more disciplined in their deployment of capital. In many cases, it works to the advantage of a satellite operator to purchase one small satellite now, and then deploy additional capital for a second small satellite a couple years later, once they determine there is customer demand sufficient to justify the additional capital spending.” The traditional metric of “cost per transponder year” is giving way to a new metric, “cost of a revenue-producing transponder year,” says Atia. “A small satellite represents less risk to the business plan than beginning with a more expensive, harder-to-fill satellite.”

      Carl Marchetto, executive vice president and general manager of Orbital’s Space Systems Group, also sees increased interest from the U.S. government in the role that small satellite systems can play in national security space programs, “where the longer-term trend is toward more responsive, faster-to-orbit space systems that can deliver critical information to the battlefield theater in a time of conflict,” he says. “We do expect that the market for science-related satellites that are primarily funded by NASA will be relatively flat for the next couple of years as the space agency focuses on moving beyond Earth orbit to implementing its Vision for Space Exploration with new initiatives,” he says.

      New Earth-Observation Constellations

      While making gains in the commercial arena, small satellites also are expanding their roles in other areas such as Earth observation. A five-nation consortium operates the Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC), which can generate images of disaster areas around the globe. Participants include the United Kingdom, Algeria, Nigeria, Turkey and China, which all operate small DMC satellites built by U.K.-based Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. The basic satellite carries an imaging payload that can collect images with a ground resolution of 32 meters and a swath width of more than 640 kilometers. Turkey’s Bilsat-1 also carries an imager that can produce black-and-white images with 12-meter resolution and color images with 24-meter resolution, while China’s Beijing-1 adds a camera that collects 4-meter imagery. About 10 percent of the capacity of these satellites is made available for support to the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters. When not being used for disaster monitoring, the satellites are available for use by the owner for national applications and the remaining time can be used for commercial imaging that is sold by DMC International Imaging Ltd.

      The constellation is expanding. In October, Deimos Imaging SL ordered a satellite dubbed Deimos, while in early November, the National Space Research and Development Agency ordered an additional DMC satellite, Nigeriasat-1. Germany’s Rapideye also has commissioned a constellation of five microsatellites to provide imagery at 6.5-meter resolution in five spectral bands from a team that includes Surrey Satellite and Canada’s MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. The images will be used primarily for agricultural and cartographic information services.

      “In addition to constellations, [Surrey Satellite] remains committed to producing affordable one-off satellites, and re-use of module designs, [and] judicious use of [off-the-shelf commercial] technology. Short time-scale and one-roof design and manufacture are all enduring keys to the lower-cost, small-satellite approach,” says Martin Sweeting, CEO of Surrey Satellite. “Nevertheless, the increasing acceptance of constellations of satellites is an interesting development that is closely coupled to the concept of keeping the costs down. Not only does the constellation produce major technical benefits such as increased temporal and spatial coverage supporting new user capabilities and applications, but also, the higher volume of satellites in production can be used to bring the individual satellite cost down further.”

      Large space companies such as France-based EADS Space also are marketing small satellites for Earth observation and other missions. “The EADS Space strategy for Earth observation is to serve the full market with a portfolio of products covering microsats, minisats and XL minisats and large satellites up to 4.5 tons,” says Michel Bouffard, director of Earth observation, navigation and science for EADS Space. His company has also entered into a partnership agreement with Antrix, the commercial arm of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) to jointly build and market small commercial satellites based on EADS Space-Astrium payloads and ISRO platform technology. The joint venture has received contracts to build the Eutelsat-W2M satellite and the Highly Adaptable Satellite (Hylas), a new broadband telecom and high-definition TV satellite owned by Avanti Screenmedia Group PLC, which is working with ESA on the project. EADS Astrium, which serves as Hylas’ prime contractor, will be designing and building the payload, while Antrix will integrate and test the satellite in addition to supplying the bus.

      Alcatel Alenia Space’s strategy is to combine standard platforms with customized payloads to provide efficient solutions for the imminent wave of satellite fleet renewal, says Blaise Jaeger, head of telecommunications activities for Alcatel Alenia Space. “Our company is willing to partner with other satellite manufacturers as long as it provides the best value for the customer,” he says. “Our ongoing [research-and-development] effort aims at making fleet management much easier by offering in-orbit reconfiguration of satellite missions thanks to flexible payloads.”

      Sweeting is not running from the larger competition and is instead moving Surrey Satellite’s small spacecraft technology into new arenas. “Some of the larger traditional aerospace companies are also developing satellites with reduced size and cost to address the same market,” says Sweeting. “In spite of this overlap, [Surrey Satellite] is still able to compete in the provision of a wide range of capabilities, from lowest-cost small technology demonstrators to more sophisticated commercial turnkey products. [Surrey Satellite] is now offering its geostationary satellites for the lower-power end of the [geosynchronous orbit] market, with the intention that low-cost satellites may make the same impact on the [geosynchronous] world as it has on the [low-Earth orbit] world.”

      Obstacles Remain

      While there is progress being made in the small satellite market, some problems must still be addressed when it comes to the adoption of standards and the shortening of integration time. Standards are still being defined and modularity still has a long way to go, Maresi says. “We see some of the units that are recurrently used on many satellites. This may generate de facto standards in the future, but we are not yet at the point where we can say we have [achieved] modular design across various suppliers,” says Maresi, who adds that high launch costs remain the bottleneck for the development of small satellites.

      A successful first flight of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA) would represent a long-awaited step forward in solving the problems of finding a ride into space. The oft-delayed ESPA, developed by CSA Engineering for the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory Space Vehicles Directorate, is designed to carry up to six satellites weighing 180 kilograms apiece in a ring configuration below the primary payload of either of the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles. The first flight of the ring is scheduled to take place in January aboard a Lockheed Martin Atlas-5 rocket as part of the Air Force’s Space Test Program-1 mission. The primary payload is the Orbital Express mission, an in-space refueling demonstration mission sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

      The first ESPA mission, which had been scheduled to take place aboard a Boeing Delta-4 vehicle until the Air Force switched the mission to Lockheed Martin as part of Boeing’s punishment for contract violations committed during the Evolved Expandable Launch Vehicle competition, will deploy four small satellites: FalconSat-3 for the U.S. Air Force Academy, Midstar-1 for the U.S. Naval Academy, the Naval Postgraduate School Satellite (NPSat-1) and the Cibola Flight Experiment Satellite (CFESat) built for the Pentagon by the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

      A successful flight will bring hope to many small satellite manufacturers and potential customers who have waited for many years for a chance to launch their spacecraft. To further reduce the cost and improve the efficiency of future experimental missions, a new satellite also is being developed: The Space Test Program/Standard Interface Vehicle, which will have a standard bus-to-payload interface, is sponsored by the Air Force’s Space Development & Test Wing and will meet the ESPA volume and weight constraints, says Dan Brophy, director of defense systems for Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. “Access to space has traditionally been a challenge for small satellite missions,” he says. “ESPA will operate as a kind of bus to space in that smaller payloads will fly along, provided they are ready to go. Otherwise, the mission will go ahead and not wait. In all instances, the primary mission takes priority.”

      Reliability Is Key

      All satellites, regardless of size, must be reliable. For small satellite manufacturers, the rules do not change even if there is less room to work with. “Reliability, which is influenced largely by connection failures, is improving. What we are seeing today is not only the use of far fewer interconnects due to higher density electronics, but also that most satellites, regardless of size, are lasting beyond their intended design life,” says Brophy.

      Many small satellites are built to undertake high-risk missions, something that commercial ventures eagerly avoid, Maresi says. “More reliable small satellites can surely be built with the present understanding, and we recently had some good examples of small satellites exceeding their design lifetime,” he says. “This was surprising, not only to those who were skeptical about the capability of commercial electronics to survive radiation in the space environment, but to those who designed the systems as well.”

      As problems such as launch options and reliability are corrected, you can bet that there will be plenty of innovative space players eager to put their payloads aboard small satellites.