Could small satellite usage double by 2020?

Small satellites offer opportunity for innovation, on-orbit upgrades, and more secure communication, according to experts.

The number of small satellite (smallsat) launches is expected to skyrocket over the next two years, because of their ability to quickly integrate new technologies, according to Todd Harrison, Director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Smallsats could not only extend the lifespan of military-use satellites, but also enhance force readiness by potentially performing upgrades and delivering new payloads, reported Gordon Roeseler, Program Manager for Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites at DARPA.

“If we’re also able to add new payloads to existing spacecraft, I think there are opportunities…to put new sensors, new communications systems, on orbit onto the geo-communications satellites,” he said.

According to NASA, there are five categories of smallsats: minisatellites, microsatellites, nanosatellites, picosatellites, and femtosatellites. Their sizes range from .01 kilograms to 180 kilograms

“Smallsats are a fundamentally different entity,” said Bhavya Lal, a researcher at the Institute for Defense Analysis’ Science and Technology Policy Institute and a panelist at a June 21 CSIS’ Small Satellites, Big Missions event. “They offer a different set of capabilities. Smallsats are a different value proposition.”

Smallsat’s size means they have lower time and monetary costs, giving them an advantage that Lal calls “speed.”

Lal illustrates the concept with this example: “The mars rover had a one mega-pixel camera and the reason for that was the design was from ten years before the time of its landing. Now canon just came out with a 200 mega-pixel camera. So if you can refresh your satellites more often…you can put a lot more capability in a shorter amount of time,” she explained.

Another benefit of faster, cheaper smallsat production is the opportunity for training and experimentation. This is unavailable with bigger satellites, because any failure or mistake comes at a high monetary and time cost.

“Smallsats changes that paradigm for space,” said Dr. Bill Jeffrey, CEO of SRI International, another panelist the event. “They allow engineers the opportunity to build a little, test a little, try out new concepts, that …would benefit national security.”

These new concepts include on-orbit servicing and refueling, and even space manufacturing, according to Jeffrey.

The first of these on-orbit servicing and refueling satellites, NASA’s Restore-L, is set to launch around 2020, according to Charles Bacon, Chief Cooperative Servicing Engineer at NASA, speaking at the 2016 AIAA Space Forum.

Restore-L uses real-time navigational algorithms and sensors to locate the satellite in need. It then uses servicing avionics software, combined with robotic arms, tools, and a propellant fuel transfer system, to perform refueling and maintenance tasks, reports NASA.

Smallsats also provide the ability to disaggregate satellite communications and other military satellite functions between many small satellites. This could make them more secure against signal interference and allow a surge capacity, according to Jeffrey.

Smallsats give “the ability to have a huge number, a constellation of hundreds of systems up there, that can exploit new phenomenology,” said Jeffrey. “If you’ve got something that you’re looking at that is highly dynamic, that you need insitu measurements, and you want continuous global coverage, that is something that traditional large systems cannot do.”

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