May 21, 2024

The Rising Potential of Small Satellites

The space industry has seen monumental growth and innovation in recent years. While large, complex satellites remain essential for critical tasks, there is a new class of spacecraft making space more accessible – small satellites. These downsized satellites offer reduced costs and shorter development times, democratizing access to space. Let us explore the promising future of small satellites and their growing impact.

A More Affordable Approach
Smallsats , typically defined as those under 500 kilograms, represent a markedly cheaper approach to launching payloads into orbit compared to traditional large satellites. Cost is a major factor limiting participation in the space industry, but smallsats help overcome this hurdle. Their reduced size allows them to share launch vehicles, lowering launch costs which often represent 50% or more of total mission expenses for a traditional satellite. Components are also simpler and mass-produced. As a result, a smallsat mission may cost only a few million dollars compared to hundreds of millions for a large one. This lowered financial barrier could enable more organizations, especially educational institutions and smaller companies, to carry out space projects.

Enabling Constellations and Rapid Development
The low cost of smallsats opens up new operational models. It becomes feasible to launch not just individual satellites but whole constellations providing extensive coverage. For example, SpaceX’s Starlink network aims to launch over 40,000 smallsat relay points to deliver global broadband internet access. Such large constellations would be prohibitively expensive using traditional satellites. Smallsats also allow for a more iterative design-and-test approach. If one fails, the relatively low cost means the mission is not doomed, and lessons can be applied to subsequent launches. Multiple iterations can be flown in the time required to ready a single large satellite, helping accelerate technology development and bringing capabilities to orbit faster.

Democratizing Access to Space-Based Data and Services
With reduced costs and more streamlined development, smallsats are broadening participation in the utilization of space. Universities can support student research projects in orbit, gathering valuable engineering experience. Companies in sectors like agriculture, oil and gas can directly use satellite imagery, communications and other data streams to boost their operations. Entrepreneurial startups are launching innovative missions ranging from on-orbit manufacturing to in-space propellant transfer. Over time, as smallsat technologies progress, their capabilities will grow to match or surpass large satellites for many applications. Continued cost reductions could even make some data and services affordable to consumers, further democratizing access to the innovative uses of space.

Expanding Applications and Pushing Technical Boundaries
Given their growing adoption worldwide, smallsats are being applied to an increasingly wide array of uses. Earth observation remains a major domain, whether for monitoring agricultural conditions, natural disasters or other environmental issues. Communications and internet access are others, as with the Starlink system. Some push the boundaries of miniaturized technology, like ChipSat, the smallest satellite ever launched at just 4 x 4 x 4 cm. Scientific smallsats expand our ability to study Earth, other planets, and conduct experiments in microgravity. On-orbit manufacturing demonstrations explores how satellites could be assembled in space from smaller components. The flexibility and cost structure of smallsats allows creative problem-solving, as seen with missions launching ‘spacephones’ that connect directly to regular cell networks. Their potential seems bound only by the imagination of their designers.

The Future is Bright for Smallsats
Looking ahead, the smallsat sector is on a steep upward trajectory. Major space agencies and companies are increasingly embracing them as vital enablers. By 2025, smallsat launches are projected to surge to over 25% of total launch attempts annually. Specialized Smallsats launch vehicles will support the need for dedicated inexpensive rides to orbit. Manufacturing and components will continue improving through innovations like printable electronic circuits. Constellations for communications, remote sensing and other services will grow exponentially. Smallsats may even start incorporating revolutionary technologies like solar sails. With reduced barriers and expanding capabilities, small satellites have opened the door to great opportunities in space utilization for governments, organisations and entrepreneurs worldwide. Their growing impact ensures smallsats will play an increasingly important role in space development and our utilization of space-based infrastructure in the coming years.

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1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
2. We have leveraged AI tools to mine information and compile it