Small Satellites Attract Interest from Large U.S. Companies

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WASHINGTON — Once dominated by small and midsize companies, the growing market for small national security satellites is drawing interest from major U.S. contractors.

The Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) concept was born earlier this decade to quickly field military satellites to meet war-fighting commanders’ urgent needs and replace aging orbiters – and to draw smaller firms into the military satellite sector.

But it appears those firms are about to see some very recognizable companies entering a market that John Edwards, a space analyst at Forecast International, calls “big and getting bigger.”

Edwards estimates 17 small satellites will be built over the next decade at a projected total value of $1.4 billion, which represents a growth of about 40 percent over current levels.

“They have shorter lives so there is a need to keep them in pipeline and ready to go up,” he said.

ORS program director Peter Wegner says, “We’re seeing interest now from both small business and big business,” including most of the major U.S. defense aerospace firms.

Boeing, for one, believes “many existing and future programs require a high performance small sat to perform the mission,” said Robert Villanueva, a spokesman for the Chicago-based company. “Boeing is investing in advanced satellite technologies for small sats. Boeing Phantom Works’ Advanced Network and Space Systems [division] views small satellites as a disruptive technology.”

Lockheed Martin is “committed to providing superior solutions that best support the ORS mission requirements,” spokesman Stephen Tatum said. “In fact, over the past 50 years, Lockheed Martin has designed, built and launched over 150 small satellites, all of which have met or exceeded their design life.”

The ORS program was conceived as a way to field smaller satellites and rockets that could quickly be developed and launched to meet urgent national security needs.

The Pentagon’s specific goals for the program have included the ability to launch a small satellite within a week of it being removed from storage; shorter times from first approval to launch; and providing top-quality imagery to specific commanders.

U.S. officials also have said they would like to use satellites like the ones envisioned under ORS to replace aging or damaged satellites.

Security space analysts agreed with Wegner’s assessment that major defense aerospace companies are giving a second look to programs like ORS. That is because senior Pentagon officials have green-lighted a new space acquisition strategy that emphasizes smaller, simpler orbiting assets, analysts said.

Under the new space-buying approach, the department will develop and purchase smaller, cheaper orbiters that are based on less-complex designs, Pentagon officials said. Gone, they say, are the days of “one-size-fits-all” satellites like the recently terminated Transformational Satellite effort.

A 2008 study of the U.S. space industrial base conducted by the Pentagon’s Cost Analysis Improvement Group (CAIG) found “the recent focus on transformational systems has hampered the execution pace required to maintain legacy capabilities.”

The Defense Department must retool its space acquisition efforts, the CAIG said. Senior officials agreed, installing the small-sat plan earlier this year.

By shifting to smaller satellites, Pentagon officials hope they can satisfy commanders’ needs in different parts of the world – while cutting program cycle times and spending fewer dollars.

Edwards said because smaller satellites are so much cheaper than complex ones like TSAT, “it’s easier to justify them to Congress than when every satellite program has a $7 billion price tag.”

Major companies are not the only ones warming to the idea of stepping up their small satellite work to meet DoD’s changing focus, Wegner said.

“There are [DoD] organizations that two years ago were resistant to us but now are eager to collaborate with us,” he said.

The driver behind the change is not just the new Pentagon buying strategy.

Wegner said a number of other forces over the last year came together to transform the landscape, including: China’s destruction of one of its orbiting weather satellites; the February collision of an Iridium telecommunications satellite and a defunct Russian satellite; and the combined effects of the global financial crisis and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ April program decisions.

That complex cocktail of events changed the national security community’s thinking about what kind of satellites Washington should be putting into space – primarily about how vulnerable they are and how much they cost. Placing too many eggs in the basket of complex and expensive satellites is no longer seen as wise.