As annual SmallSat gathering convenes, small satellites have never been a bigger deal
When Pat Patterson was a student at Utah State University in 1987, a friend told him about a conference on small satellites taking place on the campus. “What’s a small satellite?” he replied.
Over the next few years as Patterson earned his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in electrical engineering at Utah State, he learned that most satellites in orbit were the size of school buses.
“That made no sense to me,” Patterson told SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner in a recent interview. “As I got closer to the small satellite community, I realized they were onto something.”
Patterson, who has spent his 30-year career focusing on small satellites, upper atmospheric research and satellite mission planning, now oversees the annual conference in Logan, which he calls “a place for the community to come together, share idea and lessons learned, and leverage off the work others are doing.” The 2017 event, being held Aug. 5-10 in Logan, Utah, is expected to attract roughly 2,500 attendees from more than 40 countries.
How has the Small Satellite Conference changed since in 1987?
In 1987, there were between 50 and 100 people. For the first 20 years or so, we had modest growth. We had 900 attendees in 2007. In the last 10 years, the conference has nearly tripled. It mimics the growth of the small satellite industry. The more people that want to fly small satellites, the more people that want to attend the conference.
How has the small satellite business changed?
The types of missions and the number of missions have changed. When I first got involved in small satellites it was all about technology demonstration missions or student education. Few small satellites were being developed. Today, you read about new programs being conceived or launched almost every day or at least every week by the Defense Department, civil agencies and commercial ventures.
National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo is the keynote speaker for the conference. Is that an indication of the government’s serious interest in small satellites?
It is. NGA recently awarded a $14 million contract to have access to Planet imagery. Planet is building three-unit cubesats for Earth imaging. I could have never even imagined that [contract] five years ago.
I give Mr. Cardillo a lot of credit. A couple of years ago, he released the Commercial GEOINT Strategy. The concept behind it was, “If all these people are going to build commercial satellites and sell the data, maybe we ought to consider buying some of that data and augmenting it with some of the high-value assets we build.” That is truly a different model for an organization like NGA. And certainly, a lot of other organizations are going to be able to make use of that data.
The 2017 conference is focused on big data. Is making sense of data gathered by small satellites a challenge the industry faces?
That’s one of the big challenges. How do you extract the knowledge from all this data? How do you interpret it? How do you get the knowledge products to the end user in a timely fashion? How you give it to the end users in a simplified way that makes sense to them? How do you make this happen in a lower cost way?
I couldn’t think of anyone more well positioned than Mr. Cardillo to talk to that subject because NGA’s role is to ingest, interpret and disseminate data.
What other challenges does this industry need to address?
The small satellite community is still in the mode of proving itself. There are a lot of organizations from all over the world jumping on the small satellite bandwagon. If the community can take advantage of all these technological advancements across the entire industry to provide some useful knowledge products and in a low-cost way, we can build confidence in the investors, whether those investors are DoD, civil or commercial agencies.
There are certainly some big advancements that will help the entire small satellite community. The first one is launch, access to space. In the early years of the conference, people would say, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could get some of our small satellites flown.”
Over the past five to 10 years, there has been a significant uptick in rideshare, in secondary opportunities and even in deployments from the International Space Station. But today there is a whole host of organizations putting a lot of effort into dedicated launch vehicles for small satellites. The nice thing there is you can place your satellite exactly in the orbit you need when you need it, instead of being at the mercy of primary payloads. That is the next big step to space access.
Why is that important?
If you could go down a list of four dedicated launch vehicles and pick the one best suited for your satellite, that would bring tears to people’s eyes. If you’ve got a mission that requires you to be at 42 degrees inclination and 550 kilometers altitude, no launch vehicles are going to take you there today. But if you could call one of these up-and-coming dedicated small launch services and pay them a handful of millions of dollars to take you there, your business model would start to close. Then all of the sudden, your commercial investors would want to invest more money because they would see the business model closing.
What other challenges does the industry face?
Data downlink. As small satellites have moved from technology demonstration to operational missions, they need operational-sized and timely data feeds. On the back of that comes data analytics. There will be a lot of small satellites launched over the next five to 10 years. In the past, the typical approach has been to have a human in the loop to help understand and process that data. But if the market forecasts ring true, that is not going to work. We are going to have to change how we analyze, interpret and get that data out the door.
Another one is constellation management. We could talk for a couple hours about the complexities of managing a constellation of several hundred satellites. They have to figure out what data they are going to collect, what satellite is going to collect the data and how the data is going to get to the ground.
The last thing in my mind is spacecraft propulsion. It is fairly new to the small satellite community and it is still maturing. Propulsion is something that could push the small satellite community forward. Once all the pieces of the puzzle come together, the principle investigators who dream up big ideas will have a new set of tools they can use to come up with new concepts and missions.
Do you mean missions like sending cubesats to Mars or flying constellations for atmospheric science?
The answer is yes. Everybody is bound by budgets. Let’s say you’ve got $1 billion to do a mission. You can fly one or maybe if you are lucky two nice, capable, big satellites. Or, you can fly 350 small satellites. They may have simpler sensors onboard. Their lifetimes may not be as long as the large satellites. But if you could distribute those and make multipoint measurements in an orbit between the Sun and the Earth, you could understand the Sun-Earth connection better than you could with one or two satellites collecting the information. To understand space weather, you need good data to feed the models. If you can have a whole bunch of sensors at different locations, you can start to build two-dimensional and three-dimensional maps that help you characterize all these magnetic field lines, how they connect and what happens in these intricate processes we might claim to understand but we don’t understand that well. Without small satellites, you can’t perform that mission.