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Nano- and Pico-Satellites

By | October 1, 2012

      One of the lesser known results from this year’s World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-12) was a new resolution designed to improve the ITU rules for small satellites called nano- and pico-satellites.

      New resolution 757 calls on the ITU radiocommunication sector to examine procedures that apply to ITU processing of these small satellites and report to the next radio conference in 2015 (WRC-15). It also preliminarily places the subject on the 2018 conference agenda (WRC-18) for possible changes to the ITU rules.

      The resolution identifies the typical characteristics of these satellites, which are often dedicated to scientific or amateur operations. Nano- and pico-satellites commonly mass only 0.1 kg to 10 kg (0.2 lbs to 22 lbs), measure less than 0.5 meter in any dimension (less than 20 inches) and have short operational lifetimes ranging from a few weeks to years. They typically are low-cost, using off-the-shelf components, and have short development periods of one to two years.

      Another name for some of the smallest satellites is CubeSat, a term that is not used in the ITU resolution but often is applied to nano-satellites with a volume of one liter, or 10 centimeters cubed.

      In a further contrast to large, vastly more expensive communications satellites that are expected to operate up to 15 years or longer in space, these smaller satellites are typically launched as secondary payloads and have limited orbit control capabilities.

      Some missions performed with these satellites require simultaneous operation of several such satellites, which is called a “swarm.”

      The ITU rules are not geared for these smaller satellites and until now there has been no consideration of how the rules might be adopted for them. In an effort to foster their use, a group of western European countries submitted a late proposal to WRC-12 suggesting that the next ITU conference should consider frequency bands and regulatory requirements for these types of satellites. The proposal was dated January 30, 2012, for a conference that had already started on January 23.

      This proposal maintains that more than 500 of these smaller satellites are under development, which is putting pressure on currently used frequency bands, usually within the range of 137 MHz to 2,450 MHz.

      The WRC-12 resolution that was ultimately adopted declined to let this belated proposal jump to the head of the queue and, instead, plugged it into the WRC-18 agenda.

      The resolution also does not include the spectrum aspect of the original proposal, which sought to allocate particular radio spectrum for operation of these satellites. This concept was stripped from the final language of resolution 757, which only calls for consideration of regulatory procedures for notifying such satellites, “taking into account [their] short development time, short mission time and unique orbital characteristics.” There is no proposal for any spectrum allocation.

      With the adoption of this resolution, the action now shifts to the ITU study groups. Already in June of this year, the ITU radiocommunication study group 7 on science services proposed to initiate the necessary study question. Curiously, the study question asks about the distinctive characteristics of nano- and pico-satellites “in terms of their use of the radio spectrum,” and in light of those characteristics “what are [their] spectrum requirements.” This question of spectrum requirements would seem to be precisely what WRC-12 declined to consider, rather than the procedural questions that are in resolution 757.

      Nevertheless, study group 7 adopted this question in August and sent it to ITU Member States for review by mid-October. Presuming there is no objection, the question will then be studied and the results submitted to WRC-15.

      At the moment, this question has been assigned a category C2 status, which means it is “urgent” and “expected to be required for other radiocommunication conferences.” Given that a report is due by the next conference, however, it seems that the higher “very urgent” C1 status would be appropriate.

      In any event, this topic already has targeted support from the space frequency coordination group (SFCG), a group of space agencies and related national and international organizations that focus on space science services. Moreover, the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs is sponsoring a nano-satellite symposium in mid-October, in Nagoya, Japan. With this increasing focus and a new ITU platform for international rules, there may be increasing “swarms” of miniature satellites soon inhabiting Earth’s orbits.

      Gerry Oberst is a partner in the Hogan Lovells Brussels office.