WASHINGTON — The U.S. government has not embraced the small satellite movement as quickly as previously hoped.
That is the takeaway message from analysts and industry advocates who spoke last week at a Space Foundation event on Capitol Hill titled “The SmallSat Revolution.”
Small satellites have been hailed as a game changer in the space industry, but the government’s slower than anticipated adoption of smallsat technology has been a disappointment for many companies.
“When the smallsat movement started, the thinking was, ’We don’t need the government,’” said Bhavya Lal, a researcher at the IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute, a federally funded think tank. “But over the last five years, almost all the smallsat companies we talked to are eager for government contracts” to make up for lackluster commercial demand, she said. “It’s something they didn’t anticipate.”
IDA last year published a wide-ranging study of the small satellite industry. There is a “growing realization that there aren’t as many business customers as originally hoped,” Lal said. “Maybe that will change as broadband mega constellations come on line.” Companies like SpaceX and OneWeb are projected to build huge constellations of small satellites but projects have taken longer to materialize than predicted.
Advocates of small satellites say government agencies have little economic incentive to experiment with unfamiliar technology. They can afford to buy large satellites and have yet to be convinced that lower cost smallsats can provide comparable services.
A new Washington-based advocacy group, the SmallSat Alliance, is working to lift the profile of the industry and change the perception that small satellites are still in the experimental phase.
So far 40 companies have joined the alliance, said its president Steve Nixon. He said the industry is encouraged by the interest shown by NASA and the Defense Department in using small satellites but remains concerned that agencies are hesitant to give up their large custom-built satellites and invest in alternatives.
“The rhetoric coming from the Air Force and NASA is fantastic, but it’s not translating into contracts,” said Nixon.
Buyers of satellites and space-based services at these agencies are still heavily influenced by large prime contractors that see smallsats as a disruptive threat to their business, Nixon suggested. He said there is a disconnect between the message from agencies’ leaders and contracting decisions, “something that we need to address,” he said. “I think there’s some bureaucratic inertia. Also there’s a space industrial complex that might not want to see a shift to much cheaper assets.”
Organizations whose mission depend heavily on satellite data, such as the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are key target customers for the smallsat industry. But these agencies have to be convinced of the benefits, said Nixon. “NGA and NOAA aren’t really disadvantaged users. They’re getting the best stuff.”
Chirag Parikh, deputy director for counterproliferation at NGA, said his agency has been at the forefront of using commercial imagery from smallsat pioneers like Planet. The problem is that with new suppliers comes a deluge of data that the agency is not able to distribute to end users.
“It’s not a lack of desire” to support smallsat providers, Parikh said. But until the government shifts to a different model — buying analytics services, for example, rather than just data — NGA analysts don’t need more imagery that sits stored and is not used by policy makers or military commanders.
“The problem is the quantity of data coming in, the density of the data with different types of phenomenology, the velocity of data,” Parikh said. “We need to evolve our architecture. But the real question is the data. It has to get to the user to actually be employed in a timely manner.”
Parikh said there is a “big conversation” about automation and artificial intelligence helping to process imagery. “Today, there’s more imagery than analysts can look at, and more is on its way.” The question is how AI can be used in smallsat sensors and “how do we get that data into the workflow of analysts,” he said. “We have limited bandwidth and capacity.” There might be cost savings from small sats and launch vehicles, “but I think we need to think about the cost requirements for the processing, exploitation and dissemination side. I think that’s an often overlooked element.”
Karen St. Germain, director of systems architecture and advanced planning at NOAA, said her agency faces similar challenges as NGA. Smallsats are cheaper but that doesn’t necessarily translate into lower costs on the ground. “The processing, the exploitation, it doesn’t scale with the cost of the satellite,” she said. “So more small sats aren’t necessarily a panacea. We have to increase the mission impact. We have to consider the entire cost chain and the entire value chain.”
Striking a more optimistic note, Bill Gattle, president of space and intelligence systems of Harris Corporation, said the industry is now going through “one of the most exciting times we’ve had in our careers.”
Just 20 years ago, “everything was large, the government had to sponsor everything, satellite operators bet their entire companies on a launch. If it didn’t work the entire company would collapse,” Gattle said. Small satellites and small launch vehicles have made space accessible, he added. “This is a huge time for us. Space has become critical infrastructure.”
He said there is now a “huge influx of money” into the smallsat sector. “We’re almost on a Moore’s Law kind of pattern” where innovation is happening fast, Gattle said. In 2017, 450 small satellites launched, and 1,650 are projected to go to space in 2022.
In the national security arena, the government for years has talked about disaggregating the missions of large satellites into distributed constellations of smaller platforms. Now that the study phase is over, said Gattle, the question is “Who will adopt first? And what will it take to accelerate?”