New space companies confident about future of small satellites

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The start of what U.K. officials call a “new space age” is especially good news for the burgeoning global industry that makes tiny satellites and can quickly deliver data services.

FARNBOROUGH, England — Executives around the “spacezone” section of the Farnborough Airshow reacted enthusiastically to the news on Monday that the United Kingdom will invest in domestic spaceports where commercial rockets and aircraft will be able to lift small satellites into orbit.

The start of what U.K. officials call a “new space age” is especially good news for the burgeoning global industry that makes tiny satellites and can quickly deliver data services. More launch sites and more vehicle choices means it will be possible to set up new constellations in months, not years, said Borge Witthoft, chief commercial officer of GomSpace, a Danish company  that manufactures small satellites.

He predicts 2018 and 2019 will be breakthrough years both for small satellites and launch. “I will expect regular small launch services from various sites by next year,” Witthoft told SpaceNews. “We will have choices and prices will come down.”

New business opportunities are popping up around the world. GomSpace has government contracts with NASA and the European Space Agency, but Witthoft said he sees most of the activity happening on the commercial side. The company on Tuesday announced a 1.4 million euro deal with the Spanish space big data company Aistech for the assembly and integration of 10 satellites. Aistech is planning a constellation of over 300 spacecraft by 2022 to provide global air traffic and internet-of-things services for asset tracking and monitoring. The first 10 satellites will be in orbit by mid-2019.

This project illustrates the “quick development of the new space sector,” said Witthoft. “The business environment has changed in a dramatic way.”

GomSpace nanosatellites
GomSpace nanosatellites

As parts and electronics are miniaturized, manufacturers are able to make toaster-size satellites that can do what used to require a much larger spacecraft. “You have to be very careful about how you select your components,” he said. While legacy constellations were built to last 15 or 18 years, small satellite networks refresh satellites every five years or so. To avoid creating more space junk, satellites at the end of their service life are programmed to drop from their orbit and burn in the atmosphere.

Challenges for small sats
Wittholft, like other executives in the nanosatellite sector, recognize that they are up against a negative narrative — frequently pushed by the legacy satellite camp — that small satellites are not as capable and pollute space.  He said the criticism is not surprising but he finds it “arrogant.” Regardless, he said, “We have to pursue our vision and our dreams.”

A real challenge is the allocation of frequencies, which can make or break a constellation, he said. “We would most like to see stricter rules, and more visible criteria.”

Space and defense technology expert Ken Gabriel, who is president and CEO of Draper Labs, said the small satellite revolution is only going to accelerate.

Small satellites will not be a novelty but the norm, Gabriel told SpaceNews at the airshow. “We will see this happen quickly, it’s aligned with the new guard of space.”

Gabriel is a former deputy director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and a former Google executive. Draper Labs is a non-profit research and development firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was one of the original contractors of NASA’s Apollo program.

The idea of small satellites making up large constellations is a “powerful shift,” he said.

But he cautioned that many of the companies and investors that jump into this business need to grasp the complexity of coordinating the actions of hundreds of satellites.

Companies are “rightfully focusing on the informant product,” said Gabriel, without necessarily thinking through other questions, such as how to control such a large network, what system architecture is best suited and how to ensure service continuity.

Draper Labs was hired by a venture-backed satellite company — which Gabriel would not name — that was trying to deliver communications using lasers. The company was struggling because it had failed to ask key questions early on: How many satellites? How many ground stations? Where should the ground stations be? How do you factor in weather to make sure that at least one satellite will have unobstructed access to a ground station?

“Those are hard engineering problems that most people who set up these companies think about very lightly,” Gabriel said. The laser communications startup learned a hard lesson. “Because of the system architecture trades that we did, they fundamentally redesigned their system.”