In recent years, large satellite and small satellite companies have made groundbreaking technology advancements for the benefit of industry. Today, however, there is a divide between the two due, I believe, to each side feeling slightly threatened by the other. New mission-relevant technology, lower costs and faster turnaround times are available through smallsat integrators, and yet the larger satellite providers have a long legacy of proven technology that works, technology that we already use regularly in our daily lives. Both sides have come so far that it would be a shame for us to miss the opportunity to cooperate and use our abilities and knowledge to make a real difference to the world.
“Current smallsat programs represent enormous potential to advance the satellite industry as a whole. We must allow these newer companies to continue to innovate in a way that allows everyone to capitalize on this evolution.”
— Marco Villa
Large satellite manufacturers ruled the industry for decades, providing life-altering information and findings. Conversely, the small satellite industry has served as a catalyst for change — significantly reducing price points and timelines and making space more accessible to scientists and business people alike. Today, most of the world’s satellite funding is invested in large, space-based communications and scientific platforms. However, one cannot disregard the fact that more and more scientific and commercial applications that can only be enabled by smaller platforms are being financed at an ever-increasing rate.
Nanosats and other types of small satellites have pioneered the use of industrial (i.e. non-space-rated) components in space missions for the last 15 years, resulting in missions that can have rapid development timelines and inherently lower costs. The community is now facing a great deal of stress from performance expectations, however, and is rapidly recognizing that it needs new and dedicated principles to apply to development projects hat cannot be managed the same way as traditional projects.
Both communities are moving toward a “hosted partnership” architecture, where satellite developers are partnering with commercially focused companies to demonstrate sustainable, space-based business opportunities. Additionally, there is an increasing recognition of the advantages of standardizing platforms while leveraging more high-performing payloads, often developed for a wide variety of environments. This has yielded developments where the primary risk is not in the design phase, but rather, is shifted to the integration and testing phase. These are risks that have already been encountered by large satellite manufacturers that are often pushed to integrate multiple payloads into their buses. As such, there are lessons to be learned from the legacy processes of these larger satellite companies.
Current smallsat programs represent enormous potential to advance the satellite industry as a whole. We must allow these newer companies to continue to innovate in a way that allows everyone to capitalize on this evolution. We must be able to experiment with and adopt these evolutionary approaches in technology, processes and innovative cost structures that will allow aerospace to close the gap that currently exists with other high-technology sectors.
Although the smallsat industry has made a real difference in the advancement of allowing science to reach it’s full potential, we can’t do it alone. This is why I propose a call for both small and large satellite manufacturers to work together — versus in competition — to combine legacy knowledge and new technology/miniaturization to benefit commercial, civil and defense customers. It’s time to let go of ego and focus on new and improved ways to maximize mission success by combining best practices and lessons learned from both sides. Only then will we see more affordable, highly dependable programs across the globe.
Marco Villa is chief operating officer of Tyvak Nanosatellite Systems. He will be discussing the need for large and small sat convergence with Rob Schwarz, SSL’s executive director of spacecraft engineering, and Clay Mowry, president of Arianespace Inc., during the “Small Sat’s Big Impact on Larger Sat” panel discussion Aug. 8 at the 30th Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah.