— Small satellites have gone from a niche industry to an integral part of space programs, but the ability to interpret data has not kept pace with rapidly changing technology, according to Carl Marchetto, president of Space Systems for AlliantTechsystems (ATK).

Speaking at the annual Small Satellite conference in
, Marchetto said the growing small satellite market is achieving lower costs, shorter production times and advances in imaging, solar arrays and electronics, combined with lighter weight materials. The next step, he said, is to improve capabilities on the ground such as value-added satellite services and updated ground stations that will make the best use of the data being collected, especially for Earth monitoring.

“The problem we are all witnessing is the change from just raw data coming down from the satellite to real information being understood,” Marchetto said. “There is a tremendous amount of information coming out of our satellite systems. I would contend that only 20 percent is being interrogated.”

Small satellites are gaining attention in the commercial market partly because of efforts by the U.S. Defense Department’s Operationally Responsive Space program to develop satellites that can be built and launched on short notice to meet rapidly emerging needs for its forces. Companies also are taking a hard look at the commercial potential of large constellations of small satellites designed to provide more distributed, frequent coverage.

called small satellites a more elegant solution to large satellites.

“Both large and small systems play a critical role in national security, scientific exploration and technological advances. But for those areas where a distributed approach to providing space-based information and critical services is required, [small satellites] offer a particular advantage,” he said.

One recent example was the discovery by a constellation of five microsatellites of magnetic energy explosions that cause the bursts of light known as the Northern Lights. One large satellite could not have accomplished what the ATK-built Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms, or THEMIS, did, Marchetto said.

Larger constellations of microsatellites, nanosatellites and cubesats are under development, with constellations of up to 90 satellites being considered.

The industry is on the verge of taking off, Marchetto said, striking a chord with small-satellite industry representatives, university students, and present and future suppliers of small-satellite launch vehicles who attended the Aug. 11-14 Small Satellite conference sponsored by Utah State University in Logan and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Washington.

A panel of industry experts at the conference concluded that affordable access to space and more successes using small satellites will spur the market forward.

“The trick really is understanding we can do a lot with very small systems,” said Debra FacktorLepore, president of AirLaunch LLC of Kirkland, Wash. “As we have more demonstrated success [it] convinces the naysayers that you actually can get good science and you can get good commercial data and distribute a lot of small systems over a larger area. That starts to change the thinking.”

The members of the Aug. 12 Small Satellites Big Business panel also said the industry needs to develop a “killer application” that triggers enthusiasm, in addition to reducing launch costs.

said small satellites are a bargain, compared with traditionally larger satellites.

“It’s often stated that 90 percent of the cost of [large satellite] missions is bound around the last 10 percent of the performance,” he said. “Small satellites achieve about 80 percent of the capability with about 20 percent of the cost.”