New companies needed to maintain small satellite market growth

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WASHINGTON — The number of small satellites launched in 2017 exceeded even the most optimistic forecasts, but continued growth of the market will require new companies to start deploying constellations in the next few years.

The annual report by Atlanta-based SpaceWorks Engineering, published Jan. 30, found that more than 300 satellites weighing between 1 and 50 kilograms launched in 2017. That total far exceeded the 182 the company has forecast for 2017 in its previous report a year ago, and even eclipsed the more than 250 it projected for the year in its most optimistic scenario.

The increase represents a rebound after two years of declines in the number of such satellites launches, which the company said was linked to a lack of launch capacity from launch failures and other delays. Only 101 satellites in that mass class launched in 2016.

“2017 was a record-setting year for the small satellite market, significantly reducing the satellite backlog that has been building since 2015,” said Caleb Williams, space systems analyst at SpaceWorks, in a statement about the new forecast. “This year the global launch industry showed broader acceptance of small satellite rideshares and demonstrated its ability to accommodate near-term market demand even without the presence of dedicated small satellite launch vehicles.”

That growth was also due, in large part, to a single satellite operator, Planet. Nearly half of the satellites included in the report that launched in 2017 were built by Planet, which has developed a constellation of more than 150 Dove cubesats to provide daily imaging of the planet. Planet’s launch activity included 88 Doves launched on a single Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle in February 2017.

SpaceWorks noted in its report that of all the satellites weighing between 1 and 50 kilograms launched from 2008 to 2017, 35 percent were built by Planet. That dependence on a single company poses an issue for further growth of the market, as Planet has now completed its constellation and is focused on utilization rather that the deployment of additional satellites, at least for the near future.

“As Planet’s constellation reaches sustainment phase, it will be up to new operators to fuel the projected exponential growth in the market,” SpaceWorks noted in its report.

Williams, in a Jan. 30 interview, said he expected other companies in the remote sensing sector to support near-term growth, citing as examples Spire, which is developing a cubesat constellation for ship-tracking and weather data; and Satellogic, which is developing a fleet of nanosatellites for hyperspectral imagery.

“In the long-term, communications operators are expected to account for much of the exponential growth as they strive to serve the narrowband voice and M2M/IOT market,” he said, noting efforts to develop constellations to provide machine-to-machine and Internet of Things services.

The company’s forecast predicts a modest dip in 2018, with 263 satellites launched and a “full market potential,” its most optimistic projection, of 413 satellites. Growth, though, would return in 2019 and future years. By 2022, the company forecasts 460–679 satellites launching, compared to 299–418 satellites for the same year in last year’s forecast.