Small Satellite Pioneer Warns of Cubesat Bubble 

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ABU DHABI — The chairman of small-satellite pioneer Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) on May 26 said market enthusiasm for small satellites may have gone too far, with satellite development accelerating beyond sustainable business models.

The remarks by Sir Martin Sweeting to the Global Space and Satellite Forum here were equivalent to a Silicon Valley venture capitalist warning of a bubble in technology investment.

“Cubesats are the current fashion,” Sweeting said, referring to the large number of very small satellites being launched. Referring specifically to proposals for constellations of hundreds, even thousands, of small satellites for Internet delivery and Earth observation, Sweeting suggested that the “heady enthusiasm” behind these projects is like the froth on a cappuccino.

The industry can only hope that “there is some espresso at the bottom of the cappuccino,” Sweeting said.

Guildford, England-based SSTL has been building small satellites for a quarter-century, riding Moore’s Law from a university-affiliated maker of research satellites to a position of building small constellations of its own.

Sweeting said the laws of physics relating to the amount of energy needed to transfer a given quantity of data to Earth set a limit to how small satellites can get before they will no longer be competitive with larger spacecraft.

“My money is on the one-meter-diameter cubesat,” Sweeting said, given that this is large enough to offer functionality but small enough to be built on a low budget.

In addition to pioneering the use of small satellites, Sweeting and SSTL were among the first to travel the world in search of low launch costs. But as satellites’ cost, as measured in bits of throughput for a megahertz of in-orbit capacity, have dropped tenfold in the past decade or so, launch costs have not followed suit.

Sweeting applauded SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, which has succeeded in cutting commercial launch prices by nearly 50 percent compared to the existing competition.

“But what we need is to reduce the cost to orbit b a factor of 10, not two,” he said. Costs are still around $20,000 per kilogram to orbit in many cases, a price that discourages innovation, Sweeting said.