Small Satellites, Big Missions
September 22, 2017
On June 21, 2017, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) hosted a two-panel event on opportunities emerging from new space technologies, particularly small-scale satellites. Panelists discussed the implications of new small satellite technology and small satellite market dynamics, not only for the government space sector, but also for private-sector users of satellite technology and the growing cohort of commercial space systems suppliers. That small satellites will continue to grow—in use, market share, capability, and overall importance—is now widely accepted. Appreciation for the direction, pace, and implications of this growth, however, remains limited. The June CSIS event and the report that follows represent an effort to understand and describe the shape and consequences of the growth ahead. For a complete record of the session, please access the full video file at https://www.csis.org/events/small-satellites-big-missions.
The event was organized into two panels to ensure that the discussion would examine both the importance of the growing presence of small satellites in space and the effects of the growth of this market on the launch sector. The first panel focused on the potential impact of small satellite systems on the performance of new and traditional missions in space including a mix of military, civilian, and commercial satellite uses. The discussion highlighted potential benefits resulting from the flexibility, cost, and lifecycle advantages of small satellites. The benefits discussed included key attributes such as lower costs, responsiveness and flexibility, enhanced resiliency of space capabilities to ensure the performance of critical missions, new opportunities for space mission performance, and the potential for broader and more continuous coverage from space. A clear takeaway from both panels was that the growth of the market for small satellites and their launch has major implications for the U.S. government as a developer, user, and regulator of space capabilities that merit immediate consideration.
This first set of panelists included Colonel Steve Butow, the West Coast military lead for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx); William Jeffery, the CEO of SRI International; Bhavya Lal, a researcher at the Institute for Defense Analyses’ Science and Technology Policy Institute; and Aaron Rogers, a program manager for Disruptive Space Missions at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. The panel was moderated by Todd Harrison, the director of the Aerospace Security Project at CSIS.
Highlighted in the first panel were ways new and traditional missions may change with the increased use and development of small satellite systems. Tools of automation and additive manufacturing are making the “small satellite revolution” possible and companies such as OneWeb are showcasing the potential for these technologies to create massive small satellite constellations. However, the benefits of the small satellite revolution go beyond those offered by massive constellations, and the use and deployment of small satellites in a range of applications was the focus of the discussion. Compared to larger satellites, small satellites can be put in place inexpensively and quickly, and can operate in a range of orbits that may not have operational viability for large satellites. Small satellites can provide a complementary layer for existing large satellite constellations at significantly lower costs, adding much needed resiliency for certain critical systems or provide an option for rapidly supplementing satellite constellations that have suffered damage. The presence, or even the possibility, of a backup layer of capabilities for U.S. military satellite systems can provide a measure of deterrence against attacking these systems. In addition, these complementary uses of small satellites can extend the coverage, capabilities, and persistence of existing constellations.
The second panel focused on the implications of a growing small satellite market for the space launch industry. The discussion centered on the fact that delivering on the promise of small space will require significant increases in launch capacity as well as new operational models for space launch that incorporate new trajectories and more flexible delivery of payloads into space. Included on this second panel were Marco Caceres, a senior analyst and director of space studies at the Teal Group Corporation; Richard Dalbello, the vice president of business development and government affairs at Virgin Galactic; and Steve Nixon, the vice president for strategic development at Stratolaunch. The panel was moderated by Andrew Hunter, the director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at CSIS.
With diminishing costs of producing small satellites, the next step in the cost equation is lowering launch costs and increasing launch capacity. While these steps alone are challenging, there are even more dynamics in play for satellites with missions that require special orbits, something that may be the case for some small satellites. As Col. Steve Butow stated, “We have to get every small satellite into its mission-designed orbit, and that will not be a small feat. I think the success of commercial small satellites will be tied very tightly with launch.” Other ways to lower the cost of launch include reusable launch technologies, such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. Furthermore, as Marco Carceres argued, with an increase in production of small satellites, the U.S. launch market would be saturated with demand and an increase in launch services will be needed, including an increase in launch sites. The panelists agreed that for the small satellite revolution to be successful, small satellites would need to become in many cases the primary payload of a launch, not the secondary payloads they are now. The market seems poised to provide additional launch options domestically, and there is also substantial competition in the launch of small satellites from international launch providers.