Change was in the air at the recent Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

Suspended from the ceiling, the exhibits showed scaled-down models of the manufacturers’ vast, multi-tonne satellites. But some items required no reduction.

The main body of the SN-50 Nanosat on Sierra Nevada Corporation’s stand was only 40cm by 40cm. Booz Allen Hamilton, the consultancy, displayed a satellite featuring two antennas sprouting from a 10cm cube.

These tiny satellites testify how the miniaturisation that has transformed consumer electronics over the past decade has begun to reshape the once forbiddingly expensive business of putting a satellite into space. The field has been particularly transformed by the invention in 1999 of the CubeSat — 10cm boxes such as the one on the Booz Allen Hamilton stand — which can be joined together to make larger devices, depending on requirements.

The size and cost revolution, which has slashed the price of some satellite capabilities from tens of millions of dollars to tens of thousands, is encouraging start-up companies to launch niche, satellite-based enterprises. For business users, there are companies that specialise in judging from space how full oil tanks in critical oil storage facilities are and others that estimate how good a harvest certain agricultural areas will produce. Consumers stand to benefit from services that will provide internet access in remote areas or feed live images to street-mapping services.

There were 191 satellites between 1kg and 100kg launched in 2014, according to Northern Sky Research, an industry analyst. That figure represented a 95 per cent increase over the 98 launched in 2013 and compares with just 22 as recently as 2011. While Northern Sky expects a dip in activity this year — to 153 — it expects well over 200 launches in 2016.

Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, a New Zealand-based company that aims to build a small rocket to serve the market, says electronics, power and location-finding equipment have all matured extraordinarily.

191

Satellites between 1kg and 100kg launched in 2014 — a 95% increase over 2013

“The optics, the software — everything is good enough that you can be commercial from a small size,” Mr Beck says.

Yet the transformation has ramifications beyond the niche for high-technology start-ups. Some of the established market for far bigger satellites — many of which use geostationary orbits, 36,000km above a fixed point on earth — could shift to using big constellations of smaller satellites. These smaller constellations often orbit only about 300km above the earth’s surface, meaning they are far cheaper and easier to launch.

“Everyone is thinking about small now,” says George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson’s space operator.

Virgin Galactic is building a launcher — known as Launcher One — to carry payloads of 225kg or less to low-earth orbit.

“Over the next two, five, 10 years, you’ll see a tremendous amount of activity in this area,” Mr Whitesides says.

Companies can regard small satellites far more like other disposable technology than they could larger craft, Mr Beck says.

“When you’re talking about a geosynchronous satellite that cost billions of dollars to get there, it has to stay up there for 25 years,” Mr Beck says. “You need it up there to amortise your cost.”

Northern Sky is projecting a dip in launches this year partly because many operators launched constellations of satellites in 2013 and 2014 with lifespans of between 18 months and two years. Replacements will be launched in 2016.

“Five years is the technology cycle,” Mr Beck says. “You have to keep pace with everything on the ground.”

Advances in terrestrial computing and satellites’ ability to communicate with one another have helped to enhance small satellites’ usefulness. Images gathered from vast numbers of small satellites can provide almost as good a picture of the earth’s surface as the pictures from a single orbiting behemoth.

Planet Labs, a US-based earth imaging start-up that completed a $118m funding round a fortnight ago, is in the course of launching more than 100 small satellites to take pictures of earth. OneWeb, part of the UK’s Virgin Group, plans a constellation of nearly 700 satellites of 130kg to provide internet services to underserved areas.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is also planning to launch more than 4,000 small satellites for a similar project, probably in collaboration with Google, which has invested $100m in SpaceX.

Paul Kolodziejski, an engineering analyst for Booz Allen Hamilton, says these small satellites can potentially take over some of the tasks requiring large, powerful antennas or cameras with apertures of 10ft or 20ft. These are normally confined to the largest satellites.

“You cannot put anything like that on an array,” Mr Kolodziejski says of the large-aperture lenses. “But you can put an array of these small satellites together then make a virtual large aperture.”

Yet, while small satellites are the industry’s fastest-growing area, they look unlikely to eradicate other types immediately.

$4.9m

The price Rocket Lab says it will charge to launch a satellite weighing up to 100kg to up to 500km above the earth’s surface

The average size of the biggest geostationary satellites — driven by rising demand for communications bandwidth — is also increasing, Mr Beck points out. The US’s Federal Aviation Administration forecasts that demand to launch the very heaviest satellites — weighing more than 5,400kg — will hold steady until at least 2017, at an average of 9.7 launches a year.

Big sensors, which only the largest satellites can carry, are indispensable for some tasks, Mr Kolodziejski says.

Frank Culbertson, president of the Space Systems Group of Orbital ATK, the aerospace and military group, says his company will continue to offer different launch vehicles to suit different types of satellites.

“You need a mix of all the different sizes to meet the need,” Mr Culbertson says.

Yet that persistent demand could also help to resolve a problem that most observers believe is preventing growth in small satellites from accelerating to still higher rates — the challenge of actually reaching space.

Although Rocket Lab, Virgin Galactic and others are developing launchers that will take small satellites to precisely the orbits their operators want, the main option at the moment is to “ride share” on a rocket with a larger load.

“The number one problem for these guys is getting into orbit in a commercial way,” Mr Beck says. “That’s the only issue for the small satellite revolution.”

Get alerts on Colorado Springs when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section