February 21, 2024

Understanding Small Satellites and Their Growing Role in Space Technology

Small satellites are playing an increasingly important role in the modern space industry. While large satellites have enabled major advances like GPS, weather monitoring, and high-speed communications over the past few decades, small satellites offer unique advantages of lower cost, rapid deployment, and flexibility that are fueling new possibilities in space technology. This article explores the rise of small satellites and how they are shaping the future of space.

History and Definition of Small Satellites

Satellites were traditionally quite large, but the Smallsats concept originated in the 1990s with the launch of picosatellites weighing less than 1 kg. Since then, spacecraft have gotten smaller while expanding capabilities. Small satellites are generally defined as those under 500 kg, compared to large ones weighing over 500 kg. Common classifications include:

– CubeSats: A standardized type of small satellite around 10 cm in size and 1 kg weight. They helped prove the capabilities of very small, low-cost spacecraft.

– Microsatellites: Between 10-100 kg, able to conduct more advanced science and technology missions than CubeSats.

– Nanosatellites: 1-10 kg, fitting between CubeSats and microsatellites in capabilities.

Key Advantages of Small Satellites

The small size and mass of these spacecraft allow for significant advantages compared to traditional large satellites:

Lower Cost: Small satellites can be built and launched more affordably with cheaper components, smaller rockets, and mass production possibilities. CubeSats in particular can cost under $100,000 to deploy.

Rapid Deployment: Small satellites can be manufactured, assembled, tested, and launched much faster with turnaround times measured in months rather than years for large satellites. This speeds up the cycle of space technology innovation.

Improved Access: By dramatically reducing launch costs with smallsat rideshare options, more public and private organizations now have affordable access to space. This fosters more diversity in space missions.

Disposability: If small satellites have shorter lifespans or missions, they are more disposable than expensive, complex large satellites. This enables an acceptable risk tolerance for experimental technologies.

Growing Applications

Leveraging these advantages, the applications for small satellites have expanded greatly in recent years beyond early technology demonstrations:

Earth Observation: Constellations of smallsats now provide global high-resolution imagery several times daily for agriculture, mapping, environmental monitoring and other uses. Companies include Planet, BlackSky, and Iceye.

Communications: Low Earth orbit constellations are being deployed by companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon to provide global high-speed internet access from space. Smallsats enable cheaper, faster satellite deployment than alternatives.

In-Orbit Servicing: Technologies are being tested to use small robotic spacecraft to repair, refuel or upgrade other satellites for extending space infrastructure lifetimes. Leaders include Space Systems Loral, Maxar and Effective Space.

Deep Space Exploration: Nanosatellites have conducted fundamental science beyond LEO and are part of planned NASA/ESA Mars and Jupiter system exploration missions for lower-cost scouting and relay roles.

Government & Science Applications: Agencies worldwide increasingly use smallsats for Earth science, technology demonstrations, scientific research, and more cost-effective alternatives to large government satellites. This includes the growing use of CubeSats by university programs worldwide for student training and research opportunities.

Ongoing Challenges and the Future of Smallsats

While the potential of Smallsats is vast, some technical challenges remain. Restricted onboard power, compute/storage capabilities and downlinking data volumes must advance further for some complex deep space or national security missions. Rideshare launch availability, space object tracking, and orbital debris mitigation are also industrywide issues still requiring management as the numbers of smallsats increase enormously in the coming years. However, with ongoing technology maturation and new use cases emerging regularly, small satellites have established themselves as an enduring segment of the modern space economy. Looking ahead, many experts forecast a future where thousands or even millions of small satellites are operating in coordinated constellations to create a ubiquitous satellite internet, real-time global Earth monitoring grids, and novel space-based capabilities that have yet to be conceived. Exciting times are ahead as small satellites spread their wings to fully realize their transformative role in space technology.

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