Small satellites, big expectations

If you watch enough spy movies, you’ll eventually see a large satellite whiz by and, on command, zoom in on a street hundreds of miles below, providing a view of events unfolding on the ground.

Hollywood may be overstating capabilities, but one part it gets right is the sheer size of government satellites; for instance, the National Reconnaissance Office’s ‘Hexagon’ imaging satellite was 18-meters long and weighed 14,000 kilograms.

Highly capable Earth observation satellites had to be big, heavy, complex, and take a long time to construct. These factors made large satellites expensive to build and launch, so only a few were affordable at a time. Conventional wisdom says only big satellites can answer important needs. Small satellites may be changing that view: over the last few years a new generation of space entrepreneurs raised nearly a billion dollars from private investors and launched more than 100 small satellites. Top space industry prognosticators forecast over 500 small satellites on orbit by 2020; there are over 1,000 in various stages of planning or development today.

A "Hexagon" spy satellite on display at the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum in Virginia. Credit: Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

A “Hexagon” spy satellite on display at the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum in Virginia. Credit: Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center

So what constitutes small? Unlike school bus-sized satellites, small satellites weigh between 1 kilogram and 500 kilograms — roughly the size of a wine bottle up to the size of a large refrigerator. Small satellites were once mainly science projects for undergraduates, but top professors and students recognized that advances in consumer electronics could revolutionize the field. They capitalized on the commercial sector’s miniaturization components, exponential increases in computer processing, better communications devices, the rise of common interfaces, and the streamlining of manufacturing processes. They invented the innovative structural design known as a cubesat: a 10-centimeter cube (1U) which enables scaling of different size satellites using a simple building block approach (2U, 3U, 6U, etc.).

Twenty-eight Planet Dove imaging satellites ready for launch. Credit: Planet

Twenty-eight Planet Dove imaging satellites ready for launch. Credit: Planet

These improvements led to smaller but capable systems at lower costs. For example, a Planet’s constellation of nearly 100 cubesats is currently collecting 3-5-meter resolution imagery worldwide. That answers many commercial and civilian applications, such as natural resource exploration and monitoring, and disaster support. This imagery quality could also support military and intelligence uses. Large numbers of satellites offer the ability to rapidly revisit spots on the Earth. Frequent imaging aids analysts charged with monitoring commerce, treaty and regulatory compliance, and other issues. Rapid revisit is also of interest to military and intelligence analysts who are willing to trade resolution to gain “persistence” at affordable costs. The idea is to detect important changes in time to make a difference. Small satellites may offer the potential to supplement traditional national space assets in crises; decision makers discussing the need for space resiliency are considering how small satellites may be part of the solution.

Numerous small satellite companies are pursuing the national security market. In addition to Planet, Google’s Terra Bella is flying three satellites with plans for a 24-satellite constellation. Each dorm room refrigerator-sized Terra Bella satellite can collect sub-meter resolution imagery and high-definition, 90-second video clips. At that quality, a wide array of customers’ specific questions can be answered with the added benefit of monitoring movement of objects. Black Sky Global’s plan calls for 60 satellites collecting rapid revisits at sub-meter imagery; Urthecast’s plans include 16 satellites flying in pairs collecting sub-meter visible imagery on one satellite with L- and X-band radars on the companion satellite.

 The new generation of space companies do not see themselves as in the satellite business. They think of their business as an information service. Rather than focusing just on space hardware, small satellite companies use the Internet, cloud computing and advanced analytics software to provide an intuitive user interface and big data analysis.

Interest in small satellites is growing sharply. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Utah State University are hosting their 30th annual Small Satellite Conference this week in Logan, Utah. Thousands will attend. The United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation holds monthly Small Satellite Working Groups and workshops throughout the year. Senior officials from the U.S. government, military, intelligence agencies, industry and academia gather to discuss needs and capabilities. They are shaping a common understanding of small satellites.

No, not science projects anymore.

Next stop: Hollywood.


Robert Zitz, Senior Vice President/Sector Business Development and Strategic Account Director for Leidos

Robert Zitz

Robert Zitz is senior vice president at Leidos 
where he focuses on national security strategy 
and systems capabilities.