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Small satellites have been hailed as a game changer in the space industry, but the government’s slower than anticipated embrace of smallsat technology has been a disappointment, according to analysts and industry advocates who spoke at the Space Foundation’s “SmallSat Revolution” event on Capitol Hill last week.
“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.”
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.”
Steve Nixon, president of the SmallSat Alliance
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.”
Another challenge for the industry is how to deal with orbital debris. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has studied the problem for years and concluded that some active removal of debris is needed but the long-term answer is self policing. “If the industry is putting up a thousand satellites, they have to figure this out,” DARPA’s director of tactical technology Tom Kennedy said recently. “All the mega constellations are aware, they are working that problem.” The national security community and the civilian space agencies are trying to figure out how to better track debris as part of a larger space traffic management effort. But as broadband satellite companies start building their constellations, they should have a plan to de-orbit their out-of-service spacecraft.
This is an issue that will draw growing attention as more smallsats go into orbit. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted Nov. 15 to approve four proposed satellite constellations, authorizing nearly 8,000 small telecom satellites to serve U.S. entities from low Earth orbit.
Nixon also highlighted another concern for the smallsat sector: a shortage of launch options that “has held companies back” as large rocket ride-share launches often get delayed. “That drives small companies crazy. Sometimes they wait six months or more,” said Nixon. The problem is “on the verge of being solved” by the emergence of small launch providers like RocketLab. But for now smallsats depend on large vehicles like SpaceX’s Falcon 9 which was scheduled to launch 64 small satellites on Monday from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, but the Spaceflight SSO-A: SmallSat Express mission was stood down for additional inspections and postponed for at least a week.