Smallsat Use Growing, but Issues Remain

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  Space News Business

Smallsat Use Growing, but Issues Remain

By LEONARD DAVID
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 05 September 2006
03:48 pm ET


LOGAN, Utah — While commercial and military applications for small satellites are growing throughout the world, there are some key challenges ahead that must be addressed by small satellite proponents if wider adoption of the technology is to become commonplace. The issues include the need for less expensive launch services and improved Earth remote sensing sensors and developing the equipment and skills required for flying spacecraft in formation.

Experts from around the globe tackled these topics and others at the 20th Annual Conference on Small Satellites, held here August 14-17 and sponsored by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Utah State University.

No small missions

“There are small satellites, but there are no small missions,” said retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Lance Lord, former commander of both U.S. Space Command and Air Force Space Command.

Lord suggested that small satellite proponents must shape their own future. He noted that it took electricity about 46 years to get fully adopted globally; the telephone some 33 years; television about 26 years; with the Internet proliferating world wide in about 10 years time.

Given the fast, dynamic world of today — and a likely debate ahead on extended operations for military forces — Lord urged small satellite advocates to expend their talent to develop spacecraft that can handle intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks.

“We’re collecting more and enjoying it less,” Lord said. Small satellites could play a role by helping to exploit better space-derived information and its analysis, he said.

Small satellites that perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance tasks “could help us dissuade somebody from doing something as opposed to punishing them after the fact,” Lord said . A key ingredient in pushing the small satellite message forward, however, is for new partnerships to be established between providers, customers and users, he said.

Never-ending obstacles

There are never-ending obstacles to what Rick Fleeter, founder and chief executive of AeroAstro Inc., Ashburn, V a., tags as the “microspace” business. His firm is a provider of small satellites and related technology products.

“In the old, old days, we were dismissed as toys, and then as unreliable, then useless and a waste of money. But even now, with plenty of respectability — cache even — everybody claims their satellite is small even with a mass of a ton or two … we are just facing more subtle obstacles,” he told Space News.

Mainly, there is no infrastructure, Fleeter said, pointing to no low-cost launch options in the United States, “and none in the pipeline.” He suggested thinking of two


ways for cheap launch: Piggyback satellite launchings or taking a page from Apple computer history by doing something different.

“Neither is happening,” Fleeter said.

No money has ever been spent to obviate the need for a dedicated ground station for each satellite, Fleeter observed. “It costs millions of dollars to get a spectrum allocation to use a satellite … and that is for government work. If you want to launch a satellite to play with — or to do research proprietary to your company — there is just no answer for launching, nor for communicating,” he said.

Fleeter said it is known how to build low-cost microsatellites that do “cool stuff” — but added: “We don’t know how to deliver that technology to the consumer. We have built the oil fields under the ground, but we don’t have drill rigs, pipelines or refineries.”

Fast moving environment

Sir Martin Sweeting, chief executive officer of the Guildford, United Kingdom-based Surrey Satellite Technology, said the tempo of small satellite development is speeding up , but h e cautioned against standardization that could stifle progress.

“In a fast-moving environment, you’ve got to be quite careful about how you use standards,” Sweeting told Space News. “You need some standards, say for people to better communicate. But for goodness sake, don’t start to treat them as a god in their own right … because if they become a religion, then you’re sunk.”

Solving the cost of the launch issue, Sweeting suggested, will lead to a “dramatic increase” in small satellite utilization. “The launch [issue] has really got to be solved. Then you can start to think of using these things more innovatively … and then, I think, it will grow.”

Formation flying of small satellites — combined to create wide-aperture imaging — remains an art yet to be demonstrated, Sweeting said .

“Certainly, Earth observation is currently one of the most attractive applications for these small satellites. If you look 10 to 15 years ago, the applications that was hot at that time was store and forward communication … but that was before Internet existed,” he said.

Navigation and timing via small satellite also is going to be attractive, Sweeting predicted. Also a growth area to watch is the application of small satellite techniques to interplanetary exploration, he said .

Sweeting’s Surrey Satellite Technology Limited group is wrapping up a careful look at low-cost lunar exploration. Smallsat skills gained on the Moon could be sharpened there for future Mars exploration, he said.

The potential of small satellites also is being weighed by many nations, said Jean-Jacques Dordain, director general of the European Space Agency (ESA). He said ESA is interested in using low-cost spacecraft to support technology demonstrations, such as that organization’s SMART-1 lunar probe.

Dordain said the debate between big and small satellites “is confused” with a lot of different aspects that cloud the border lines of the discussion. “The debate, in my view, is only driven by what are the requirements,” he said, underscoring the fact that there are clear needs for both big and small spacecraft.

“Small is, maybe, not the way to define the small satellites. In my view, it’s a question of approach,” Dordain said. “What is small for someone can be big for somebody else.”

ESA has begun looking into a “Light-Sat” approach, Dordain said , a strategy that also takes into account new management rules for customers, developers and contractors.

Robert Meurer, technical chairman of the conference and director  of civil/commercial/international business development at Swales Aerospace in Beltsville, Md., said imaging satellites are likely the most solid small satellite application.

While smallsats don’t equate to Spot or Landsat remote sensing systems in terms of output quantity, Meurer said they do have excellent regional applications and can produce quality imagery. Furthermore, satisfying smallsat pointing accuracy needs for Earth remote sensing can spill over into other applications, he said.

“Small satellite imaging needs are honing attitude control abilities. … As we improve the skill sets there … then we enable other applications, like astronomy missions,” Meurer said.

“I just don’t think we’ve done a good enough job … because we’re not selling these things by the tens yet. We’ve stayed too much in the research and development, play with it, world,” Meurer said.

T he small satellite community must keep in mind that old marketing adage: “We’re not selling the steak … we’re selling the sizzle,” he added.