Miniaturization of technology has not remained limited to all things Earth but has also found a niche in satellite technology as global demand in communications and information sectors continues to grow exponentially.
A satellite is considered to be a small satellite, or smallsat as it is colloquially known, when it is of low mass and size, generally ranging from 1 kilogram to 500 kilograms.
Smallsats are further classified into different categories based on mass and applicability, like CubeSats, for example.
The surge in demand for smallsats in recent years, essentially, stems from the fact that they are more affordable, in terms of both manufacturing and launch costs, not to mention the fact that they can be developed considerably faster, and by smaller teams.
What smallsats have, basically, done is that they’ve given satellite customers the flexibility to choose between the financially economical lighter satellites or the more expensive heavier versions with better lifetime, propulsion and stabilization capabilities, depending on their requirement.
Euroconsult, a global consulting company specializing in space markets, says that the next ten years could well witness the launch of some 7,000 smallsats worth $38 billion.
The average launch per year is estimated to reach nearly 600 smallsats by 2022, growing to as many as 820 per year by 2027.
These figures are based on Euroconsult’s latest forecast for the next ten years, which, according to the firm’s own admission, has increased by a substantial 13 percent over the previous edition of its report, which is indicative of the “untapped potential of several applications and regions of the world.”
The privately-owned company also predicts that a whopping 82 percent of the 7,000 smallsats will be constellation-based, while single satellites will constitute the remaining 18 percent.
Also, while the constellation marketplace is “cyclical” in nature “with strong year-to-year variations,” the demand for single satellites is expected to be more evenly spread over the ten-year period.
Euroconsult attributes the expected fluctuations to the fact that constellations are initially deployed in batches within a short span of time, driven by the need to get them operational as soon as possible, for obvious reasons.
Commercial space companies such as Rocket Lab, Firefly Aerospace and Virgin Orbit – a spinoff of British space company Virgin Galactic – are developing dedicated launch vehicles in order to tap into the rapidly-expanding highly-profitable smallsat industry.
In fact, all three of them are currently in contract with NASA to provide dedicated launch vehicles for the space agency’s Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) initiative.
As recently as less than two weeks ago, a Rocket Lab Electron rocket launched thirteen small satellites for NASA’s ELaNa (Educational Launch of Nanosatellites) program.
Not only was the Dec 16 launch a first for Rocket Lab in that it was its maiden NASA mission, but it also marked the space agency’s first launch under its Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) initiative.
“The NASA Venture Class Launch Service contract was designed from the ground up to be an innovative way for NASA to work and encourage new launch companies to come to the market and enable a future class of rockets for the growing small satellite market,” ELaNa-19 mission manager Justin Treptow said in a press release, about a couple of weeks before the launch.
“Matching ELaNa-19 with the Electron rocket gives these advanced scientific and educational satellites first-class tickets to space while providing valuable insight for potential NASA missions in the future,” he said.
The thirteen smallsats included satellites developed by American Universities as well as NASA-developed ones, including the Compact Radiation Belt Explorer (CeREs) satellite from the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the Advance Electrical Bus (ALBus) from NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, Ohio.
It was the California-based company’s third orbital mission of the year, having successfully put three smallsats into orbit on behalf of Spire Global and Planet in January, and six small satellites as recently as last month.
Rocket lab’s November mission, nicknamed “It’s Business Time,” saw the successful launch of two Lemur-2 satellites, two Proxima satellites, a CICERO 10 satellite, and an Irvine01 CubeSat.
It also launched a NABEO drag sail built by Germany’s HPS GmbH (High-Performance Space Structure Systems GmBH).
NABEO will test a technique that is being developed to reduce space junk by deorbiting small satellites at the end of their operating lives using atmospheric drag.
Speaking to Spaceflight Now last month, Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck said that despite the launch delays this year, the company had laid the groundwork for a faster launch manifest.
“What we’ve, in fact, done is taken our time to really set the business up to succeed in a high volume kind of way,” Beck added.
With a new high-volume factory in Auckland and one in Huntington Beach, California, Rocket Lab is looking at a production capability of one new launch vehicle every week.
Between its New Zealand launch site and an under-construction launch pad at Wallops Island, Virginia – expected to be operational by the third quarter of 2019 – Rocket Lab has 16 Electron launches planned for 2019, according to Spaceflight Now.
“Our goal by the end of next year is to be launching once every two weeks, and as we move into 2020, launching once a week,” Beck said.
“We’re tracking a pretty big pipeline of customers, and we’ve been very fortunate that people have put their trust in us,” he added.
These are strong indicators of the profitability potential that companies like Rocket Lab see in the smallsat launch business.
As mentioned earlier, smallsats are a broad classification for satellites ranging from 1 kilogram to 500 kilograms, but exact categorization depends on mass and application, among other factors.
NASA classifies smallsats into the following categories.
- Minisatellite – 100-180 kilograms
- Microsatellite – 10-100 kilograms
- Nanosatellite – 1-10 kilograms
- Picosatellite – 0.01-1 kilograms
- Femtosatellite – 0.001-0.01 kilograms
CubeSats come under the category of nanosatellites but with a standard size and form factor, says NASA.
“The standard CubeSat size uses a “one unit” or “1U” measuring 10x10x10 cms and is extendable to larger sizes; 1.5, 2, 3, 6, and even 12U,” the space agency explains on its website.
CubeSats have evolved into an industry in itself, and the collaboration between governments, private entities and universities have contributed in a huge way toward their “ever increasing capabilities.”
“CubeSats now provide a cost effective platform for science investigations, new technology demonstrations and advanced mission concepts using constellations, swarms disaggregated systems,” NASA says.
A three-day International Conference on Small Satellites (ICSS) will be held from Feb 7 to Feb 9 in Hyderabad, India.
According to the conference website, ICSS 2019 should go a long way in “creating a common platform for all the stakeholders of small satellites and miniature sensors to discuss, deliberate and to establish technological collaborations for future developments.”