LOGAN, Utah — The U.S. military is eager to take advantage of small satellite constellations if the technology proves it can fulfill military requirements and the price is right.
If the cost of performing a mission with small satellites in low Earth orbit is seven times as expensive as performing the mission in a different orbit that would be a problem, Col. Dennis Bythewood, U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center program executive officer for space development, said Aug. 5 at the Small Satellite Conference.
The Air Force is working with government and industry partners to reduce the cost of small satellite sensors. Companies are developing innovative satellite buses and leading the way on autonomous spacecraft operations, but the military still is looking for missile warning, tactical satellite communications and intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance payloads it can “afford to proliferate at the numbers we are after,” Bythewood said during a conference panel, “SmallSats at Scale.”
The U.S. Army also sees promise in large constellations of small satellites.
Since 2010, the Army has sent more than a dozen experimental small satellites into orbit. “People in the Army are starting to believe this might actually have some serious operational utility in terms of resilience and persistence,” said Jim Pruneski, Army Space and Missile Defense Command space and strategic systems director. “We are very interested in working with industry to identify new innovative applications, payloads, sensors and communications capabilities.”
Operating large numbers of small satellites also presents challenges.
“One of the biggest things that keeps me awake at night is managing these constellations,” Pruneski said. “It’s one thing to task half a dozen electro-optical or infrared sensors.”
In the future, military organizations might be working with much larger remote sensing constellations. Instead of tasking individual satellites, the organizations will have to learn to employ artificial intelligence to task the constellation.
Artificial intelligence also is necessary to make sense of the flood of data coming from large numbers of high-resolution imaging satellites, said Jim Crawford, Orbital Insight CEO and founder. Government agencies and companies like Orbital Insight rely on artificial intelligence to track objects including rail cars, trucks, cars and shipping containers.
As more Earth observation satellites begin delivering higher resolution imagery, government and commercial customers could turn to artificial intelligence to gain a deeper understanding of economic conditions and military activity.
With artificial intelligence, an agency could count every kind of vehicle at every military base, every kind of vehicle on every border and identify new airfields and military bases. “We would get a much more holistic picture that would change the way we think about what our adversaries are doing and what’s going on militarily in the world,” Crawford said.
For small satellite manufacturers like Maxar Technologies one of the biggest challenges in producing the spacecraft at scale is cost. The cost of some satellite parts is dropping since companies like OneWeb and SpaceX are ordering thousands of components. Still, small satellite production doesn’t involve numbers large enough to apply many of the industrialization techniques of the automobile industry.
Automakers produce hundreds of thousands of cars. In contrast, Maxar has built 19 SkySat Earth observation satellites for Planet. Even SpaceX plans to ultimately launch as many as 12,000 satellites.
“Finding the right balance of industrialization versus keeping the best of what we know from legacy space as far as manual construction and rigorous testing is what we’re looking for,” said Ben Randolph, Maxar senior director of smallsat production