If you watch enough spy movies you will see a large satellite whiz by and on command, point its massive camera at a street scene hundreds of miles below. Zooming in on the people and items of interest, the audience sees the satellite monitoring events in real-time to help stop a villain before it is too late. Hollywood may be overstating capabilities, but one part they get right is the sheer size of some current and past government satellites. For instance, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is 43.5 feet long — the size of a large school bus — and weighs 24,500 lbs; and the National Reconnaissance Office’s recently declassified ‘Hexagon’ imaging satellite was 30,000 lbs. and 60 feet long.
Highly capable earth observation satellites had to be big, heavy, complex, and take a long time to plan, design and construct. They required highly specialized manufacturing. These factors made large satellites expensive to build, expensive to launch, and only a few were affordable at any given 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 in orbit by 2020; there are over 1,000 in various stages of planning or development today.
So what constitutes ‘small’?
Unlike schoolbus-sized satellites, small satellites are a class of spacecraft weighing between 2.2 lbs. and 1,100 lbs. That is like going from the size of a wine bottle up to the size of a Meneghini La Cambusa refrigerator. Small satellites were once mainly science projects for undergraduate aeronautical engineering students, but top professors and young engineers recognized that advances in consumer electronics could revolutionize the field. They capitalized on the commercial sector’s miniaturization of sensors and other components, exponential increases in computer processing, better communications devices, advances in materials, the rise of common interfaces and the streamlining of manufacturing processes in high tech industries. They invented the simple yet innovative structural design now known as a ‘CubeSat’ — a 10×10 cm unit (1U) which enables scaling of different size satellites using a simple building block approach (2U, 3U, 6U, etc.)
The improved technologies, designs and processes led to smaller but still capable systems at lower costs. For example, a Planet Labs constellation (a ‘flock’) of nearly 100 wine bottle-sized satellites (8.8 pound ‘doves’ – thousands times lighter than traditional imagers) is currently collecting three to five meter resolution imagery worldwide. That is good enough to answer many commercial and civilian applications, such as natural resource exploration and monitoring, crop and vegetation analysis and disaster support.
Large numbers of satellites offers the ability to rapidly revisit spots on the Earth. Frequent imaging aids business and government analysts charged with monitoring commerce, treaty and regulatory compliance, food and water supplies, deforestation, and other issues. Rapid revisit is also of keen interest to military and intelligence analysts who are willing to trade resolution to gain ‘persistence’. The idea is to detect important changes in time to make a difference. Small satellites offer a means to gain persistence at affordable costs. Small satellites may offer the potential to supplement traditional national space assets in crises; senior decision makers discussing the need for space resiliency are considering how small satellites may be part of the solution.
Players in the market
Numerous small satellite companies are pursuing the market. In addition to Planet Labs, Google's Skybox Imaging (recently renamed as Terra Bella) is flying SkySat 1 and SkySat 2 with plans for a 24 satellites constellation. Each dorm room refrigerator-sized SkySat satellite can collect sub-meter resolution imagery and high definition, 90-seconds video clips. At that quality, a wide array of customers’ specific questions can be answered with the added benefit of monitoring movement of objects. BlackSky 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. Many other companies are entering into the small satellite market and as a result, more than 20 companies are working to develop low cost, rapid launch capabilities specifically for smaller satellites.
Harvard Business School Professor of Marketing Ted Levitt famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole!” The new generation of space companies do not see themselves as in the satellite business. They think of their business as an information service: the delivery of answers for customers’ hardest problems. 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. They plan to do Big Data analysis for their customers. They will ingest, correlate and geo-rectify their pixels with multiple other sources of information; they intend to run change detection algorithms to detect anomalous events to tip analysts and other collection systems. These new firms are even building the flexibility for customers to do their own shopping for images and drive new collection if desired. Traditional Big Data companies are taking note of the smallsat firms.
Interest in small satellites is growing sharply. The United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) held the first Small Satellite Workshop at National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) headquarters on November 16 and 17 last year. Seniors from the White House, Congress, military services, intelligence agencies, industry and academia gathered to discuss needs and technical capabilities. They began to shape a common understanding of small satellites. No, not science projects anymore. Next stop: Hollywood.