Small satellites are about to fill the skies, as vendors ranging from longtime defense contractors to startups craft models much lighter and less bulky and costlier than prior iterations. Targeted at everything from the Armed Forces to agriculture, these ecosystems of bread- or toaster-size satellites could reshape broadband -- especially in hard-to-reach regions of the world.
Small satellites are the fastest growing of the three satellite segments, according to a January 2019 report released by ResearchAndMarkets. The 1,500-kilogram class (the smallest grouping) has the biggest market share "due to a growing need for data connectivity across the globe [and] during the forecast period [2018-2028], 1,500-kg class of satellites is expected to grow at a faster rate in comparison with the other classes," the report said.
In fact, 11,746 small satellites for new constellation installations and replacement missions will generate a surge in launch demands through 2030, recent Frost & Sullivan research found. This will generate more than $69 billion in revenue for small-satellite launch services alone, Kamalanathan Kaspar, senior industry analyst, Space, said in a statement. The robust market will stimulate innovative solutions across the entire value chain from launch to manufacturing through supply chain, he said.
"The small-satellite launch service market is gaining pace with 89 small satellites launched in the third quarter of 2018. We also saw seven new players joining the small-satellite launch services race," Kaspar added.
Smaller than a Breadbox
Swarm’s 1/4U SpaceBEE satellite is small enough to hold in your hand. (Source: Swarm Technologies)
Smaller satellites, full of powerful chips and replete with APIs for earth-based updates, might bring democratization to fleets of space-based satellites from a totally different family of providers. As Igor Levchenko, author Shuyan Xu and research fellow Kateryna Bazaka wrote in The Space Review this month:
Miniaturization means lower cost and thus much higher affordability and access to space for those who cannot spend millions on buying an entire launch, like small research labs, private companies, and universities. Even for those who can afford launching conventional spacecraft, small satellites provide a potentially lucrative opportunity as they could form networked distributed systems. A dynamically changing, adaptive constellation of [many] small satellites can perform mission-oriented, coordinated formation flights and feature technical capabilities not readily available in small networks of conventional satellites with the total mass comparable to that of the constellation. The additional capabilities can mean faster data transfer and wider coverage of survey and information collection -- and there is no secret that big data analytics has become central to the global economy.
Shrinking into a big opportunity
Harris Corp., which primarily works with government and military customers, currently has 17 small satellites under contract with five customers, including one small-sat communications solution for the Army, Bill Gattle, president of Space and Intelligence Systems at Harris told Politico earlier this month. In early 2018, it had three customers trying out these smaller models, he said.
"What we're starting to see is... [customers] want to do an initial launch before they do large constellations. We've moved from seeing people interested in small sats but not investing, to people seeing the value to fly a pathfinder mission...," he told the publication. "It's been an incremental investment strategy by the government to try to prove out the concepts."
The market attracts startups looking to break into broadband, specifically. Swarm Technologies -- which adopted one of the newer domain names (.space, of course) to add to its buzz (and perhaps allow it to get Swarm as the URL) -- envisions a sky replete with satellites the size of a toasted sandwich, according to Sara Spangelo, aerospace engineer and CEO of Swarm.
With co-founder and Apple veteran Ben Longmier, Swarm will use a patent-pending means to steer their small satellites without needing thrusters or jets, wrote Fortune. Currents like the Earth's magnetic field, like the currents running through oceans, will steer the small satellites; in less than two years, for about $25 million, Swarm says it can create a low-cost network that delivers "at least some" global connectivity, a solution that could meet some of a providers' needs such as IoT.
Being a satellite newbie can be "exciting" in other ways.
Swarm ran afoul of the Federal Communications Commission after allegedly launching and operating four small, experimental communications satellites that might have undergone unintended "satellite collisions" and threatened "critical commercial and government satellite operations,"
Reuters reported at the time. In mid-December 2018, Swarm agreed to pay $900,000 to the FCC, agreed to enhanced FCC oversight and to provide pre-launch notices to the FCC for three years.
— Alison Diana, Editor, Broadband World News. Follow us on Twitter or @alisoncdiana.