A host of new entrants in the space field, what we term “newspace” companies, are hitting the market with a variety of capabilities in imagery, communications and other missions. These innovative companies, including Skybox Imaging, Planet Labs and OneWeb, among others, are fueled by private capital. They seek to drive cost-cutting technological advances in computational and processing power, sensor miniaturization and advanced analytics to disrupt current markets and create new ones where none exists.
Will newspace companies achieve their lofty ambitions? If so, how should the U.S. government respond?
The futurists at In-Q-Tel apparently believe the emerging commercial small-satellite market has staying power and point to the following:
- The scale of private investment — reflecting a “build it and they will come” approach, based on the potential to monetize resulting big data.
- Maturation of space hardware to enable low-cost commoditization.
- Ground processing advances from the commercial world that enable on-the-fly crunching of massive volumes of streaming data and advanced big data analytics and visualization to make sense of it all.
Still, realization of the newspace vision is far from assured. Reliable, very-low-cost launch is probably the biggest challenge. Also, the business case is yet to be proved. Can the resulting data be monetized to provide sufficient return on investment?
Nonetheless, now is the time for the U.S. government and potential industrial partners to think through the ramifications of a world in which large constellations of commercial smallsats may soon become a reality.
As part of a wait-and-see strategy, the government would monitor developments and contract for services from newspace companies on a case-by-case, as-needed basis once such capabilities have been clearly demonstrated. This cautious approach has the benefit of allowing the marketplace to determine which companies survive, but it risks missed opportunities.
An activist approach would have the government begin right away to incorporate newspace trends into its national security missions. For example, lower-cost proliferated architectures have the potential to help the government address mounting budget pressures and the vulnerabilities posed by the growing anti-satellite capabilities of Russia and China. The risk here is chasing the wrong trends; after all, governments do not excel in picking commercial technology winners.
A middle approach may be emerging via the modest investments in newspace being contemplated by In-Q-Tel. The goal is to achieve some influence now over emerging commercial smallsat systems and architectures, while positioning to leverage the most promising technologies in the future. Executed well, this approach also permits an informed transition to a more activist position, if and when warranted.
The U.S. government also must address licensing and export-control related issues associated with newspace. We have seen how government regulations and licensing decisions can affect U.S. satellite and component manufacturers and commercial satellite imagery providers. Likewise, U.S. regulatory actions (or inaction) can have a profound impact on newspace companies. These companies, like any, need stability and predictability that can only come through a responsive and open U.S. government decision-making process.
Given the role Congress played in promoting the U.S. commercial remote sensing industry, and more recently in requiring competition in launch, one can expect legislators to prod the executive branch to be forward-leaning on newspace. At the same time, members of Congress should resist the temptation to pit newspace companies against established providers as part of a zero-sum game. It is important to remember that newspace data will be inherently commercial “open source” information — available to our adversaries as well as our friends and allies. Its unique value to the U.S. government will derive from how the data are used to help solve military and intelligence problems. Hence, it should be seen as a complement — not a competitor — to dedicated national space (and other nontechnical) capabilities.
Specifically, how might the government exploit newspace data to provide strategic warning and tailored tasking of its dedicated intelligence satellites? What are the opportunities to fuse social media and other open source data with newspace data, and what are the privacy implications? How will the design of future space and ground architectures avoid duplicating — yet fully exploit — newspace data? What role might established space companies with proven expertise play in integrating complex systems to help harness this new information for the government?
Newspace companies exemplify the American entrepreneurial spirit. Despite (or perhaps because of) newspace’s potential for disruption, it should be a welcome complement to existing and planned national space intelligence systems and architectures that will continue to provide the United States a critical decision advantage. Senior leaders in government and industry would do well to carefully consider the implications and plan for the arrival of the newspace companies.
Christopher A. Williams chaired the U.S. Department of Defense Policy Board and served as acting undersecretary of defense for policy and budget director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He is president of Christopher A. Williams LLC. Bryan R. Smith served as budget director of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and held senior career positions at the White House Office of Management and Budget, the National Reconnaissance Office and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He is an independent consultant.