Small Satellites Finding Bigger Roles as Acceptance Grows

by

LOGAN, Utah — Acceptance of small satellites to perform a mix of academic, commercial and government Earth-orbiting missions is on the rise, according to industry and government officials who credit an explosion of consumer micro-technologies making it possible to pack more and more capability into a tiny spacecraft.

Experts attending the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ annual Small Satellite Conference at Utah State University here Aug. 8-11 predict a steady proliferation of small satellite launches in the year ahead, including the deployment of palm-sized cubesats. The forecast is driven in part by an upswing in the availability of lower-cost launches as operators in United States and abroad continue to make room for secondary payloads.

Telecommunications, Earth imaging, maritime tracking, space science observations, on-orbit technology demonstrations and interplanetary missions are all being eyed as ways to further showcase the power of ultrasmall packages to deliver high-quality product.

“In the last two to three years, I have felt that we have turned the corner. Small satellites are part of the mainstream,” said Robert Meurer, vice president of business development at small satellite builder ATK Aerospace Systems Group in Beltsville, Md.

“You see the acceptance within our own government agencies … embracing small satellites for certain applications. The world is all over small satellites. We’re poised in the next decade for tremendous growth in these space assets worldwide, particularly remote sensing satellites,” Meurer told Space News.

In a keynote address here, U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) Director Bruce Carlson endorsed the use of small satellites to demonstrate innovative technologies. “Small satellites will continue to play an important role, I believe, in helping to maintain the space industrial base and develop our future work force,” he said.

Carlson cited as an example the NRO’s Colony 1 project, which took advantage of a Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 9 launch in December to demonstrate the utility of small satellites. He said a follow-on small satellite, dubbed Colony 2, is manifested for an NRO launch in 2012.

Carlson said about 60 percent of the technology incorporated on classified NRO spacecraft comes out of NRO’s advanced science and technology program, a research and development budget line he has boosted since becoming director.

“NRO wants to continue to focus on demonstrating unique innovative technologies which we can then roll into our baseline satellite system,” Carlson said. NRO is looking into use of small satellites that fly in formation, for example, to create artificially larger apertures for imagery and signal intelligence gathering purposes, he said.

Also voicing  support for small satellites here was Peter Wegner, director of the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. “The problem with the U.S. space business is that we’ve got too much money. We really haven’t had to think very hard,” he said.

A small satellite architecture, Wegner said, promotes capacity building in smaller cost increments, as well as accelerating the adoption of newer technologies. He said the June ORS-1 satellite launch — built to deliver visible and infrared imagery to U.S. forces operating in the Middle East and Southwest Asia — has sent a strong message about small satellites’ providing revolutionary capability, as does September’s planned launch of the TacSat-4 communications satellite.

Siegfried Janson, a senior scientist at the Aerospace Corp. in El Segundo, Calif., said his review of 25 years of small satellites shows a number of trends, specifically that small spacecraft have gotten smaller and are in use for more than just communications.

“Advances in micro/nanoelectronics, microelectromechanical systems, solar cell technologies, global positioning systems, and the Internet have allowed small groups of individuals to design, build and fly ever-smaller satellites with ever-increasing capabilities,” Janson reported. “Today’s small satellites are as capable, or more so, than their larger cousins were 25 years ago. This trend should continue over the next 25 years.”

Janson said the deployment of cubesats — which measure 10 centimeters on a side — has taken place from Indian, Russian, Japanese, European and U.S. launch vehicles. “I’m sure at some point we’ll see them on Chinese launch vehicles,” he said.

Janson predicted that modular “Lego-type” satellites would eventually emerge “to build capability as you need it.” Reprogramming and physically changing a satellite to conduct multiple duties is another attribute of these spacecraft, he said.

“We have this unprecedented computational capability that we’re still not really using, [we are] only using a small fraction of what’s available,” Janson said. “You can put terabytes of memory into a cubesat. Nobody knows what to do with that yet … but we’ll figure it out.”

For many years there have been fewer rides to orbit for cubesat-class satellites than could be accommodated. That has resulted in a backlog of launch-ready cubesats that were on the shelf, said David Klumpar, director of the Space Science and Engineering Laboratory at Montana State University in Bozeman.

“In the future, it may not be so much a lack of funds. With increased affordable launch opportunities, there could be more launch capacity than cubesat developers can fill on every offered launch opportunity,” Klumpar told Space News.

Klumpar added, however, that this will depend on the orbit being offered. Some orbits are in greater demand than others depending on specific mission requirements.

Furthermore, certain sponsored launches will be restricted to specific classes of developers, like universities, the Department of Defense and NASA, so all launch slots will not necessarily be available to all cubesat developers.

“In the end, from a developer’s point of view, a ‘new order’ with the promise of plentiful launch opportunities at low cost looks pretty good,” Klumpar said. “In the best of all worlds, that increased launch availability would encourage more funding from various agencies to develop more satellites.”