Photo Credit: NASA

Small Satellites: The Future Is Brighter Than Ever

By Mary E. (Becky) Cudzilo; Christopher DeMay; Jolyon D. Thurgood, Ph.D.; and Darrel L. Williams, Ph.D.

This article was originally published in USGIF’s State & Future of GEOINT Report 2017. Download the full report here.


From the University of Surrey’s launch of technology demonstrator UoSAT-1 in 1981 to the 2016 launch of BlackSky’s 1-meter optical imager Pathfinder-1, small satellites have changed the face of overhead geospatial data collection. Each year, small satellites become even smaller, more sophisticated, more capable, and less expensive. It is predicted that small satellites (under the currently accepted definition, systems weighing more than 12 kilograms and under 500 kilograms) will soon replace or at the very least augment larger, more exquisite satellites[1] as the industry offers less expensive alternatives that can be deployed and improved at a much faster pace.

In the past, small satellites were considered university research projects — cube sats that students built to have fun and learn about satellites. Cube sats are miniaturized satellites constructed using multiples of 10 x 10 x11.35 centimeter cubic units called a “U” and are typically less than 1.33 kilogram mass per unit. That perception of small satellites has proven to be both stale and shortsighted. While cube sats are in the news as the flavor of the year,[2] fully capable small satellites are becoming highly adept at making money. A recent U.S. government example of this is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) awarding $20 million to Planet to utilize imagery from the company’s 6-kilogram cube sats.[3] Outside of the government domain, small satellites are moving forward commercially; for example, Sierra Nevada Corporation building the next-generation ORBCOMM fleet of 18 or more 130-kilogram small satellites.[4] According to SpaceNews,[5] venture capitalists invested $1.8 billion in space companies in 2015 — more than twice the amount received in the preceding 15 years combined. Whether small satellites are launched for Earth observation, science, or for other commercial data acquisition, there is both money and mission to be found, as Fortune confirms.[6]

Many ask are small satellites capable enough to replace or augment large satellites? The miniaturization of technology and an entrepreneurial environment ripe for new opportunities have advanced small satellite technology into the competitive marketplace. Consider that satellites the size of IKONOS, at 817 kilograms, launched just 16 years ago, are now being replaced with 83 kilogram systems such as Terra Bella’s SkySat small satellites, which offer the same agility, accuracy, and resolution. Fully redundant, very capable systems are being built and can even be purchased online through the NASA Rapid Spacecraft Development Office (RSDO)[7] or directly from spacecraft providers. Each bus can be defined and specified uniquely from a basic standard model to include full redundancy.[8]

Small satellites fulfill roles hidden in plain sight that many people are unaware of. Galileo, the global navigation satellite system (GNSS) that is currently underway by the European Union (EU) and launched by the European Space Agency weighs in at 675 kilograms for each of the 14 satellites already launched and replaces existing Global Positioning System (GPS) access to the 1,415-kilogram GLONASS system with the same redundant architecture and commercial capabilities. In addition, MDA’s RadarSat-2, at 2,200 kilograms, is used in conjunction with ExactEarth-1’s automatic identification system (AIS) to provide maritime domain awareness to the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security.[9] While ExactEarth-1 is a small satellite at 100 kilograms, the capabilities of both satellites will be encompassed in a single next-generation synthetic aperture radar (SAR) system. In March 2017, Surrey Satellite Technology will launch NovaSAR, which has small, 3-meter by 1-meter SAR and AIS payloads combined,[10] providing commercial small satellite maritime domain awareness capability in a small fully redundant package of 400 kilograms. Even NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory are utilizing small satellites to investigate long-term climate change.[11]

According to research by Surrey Satellite Technology US, 20 to 30 50-kilogram to 500-kilogram satellites are launched per year, thereby rapidly overtaking launches of 500-kilogram or larger satellites annually. This number is restricted to slightly larger systems and does not include the sizable number of cube sats Planet is launching. Some of the numbers are based on the trend toward small satellite constellations — starting with the five-satellite RapidEye constellation in 2008 — which has now exploded into the aspirations of a broad and diverse generation of new companies such as Aquila, BlackSky, GeoOptics, HawkEye 360, Hera Systems, Iceye, OneWeb, Planet, Satellogic, and Spire.

Technological advances have enabled small satellites to compete in the large satellite world as many facets of satellite technology have become smaller.

· New solar panel cell technology combined with honeycombed aluminum or carbon fiber enables small satellite panels to be lighter, smaller, and less expensive.

· Lithium-ion battery technology has drastically improved in the last 10 years to provide more consistent power in a smaller, lighter package.

· Star tracker technology now enables single-, dual-, and triple-headed configurations to provide precise attitude accuracy in a two-kilogram package.

· A new micro-cooling unit developed by Lockheed Martin is opening up the small satellite market for thermal and infrared imaging.

· Honeywell International has micro-electromechanical sensors — high-performance inertial packages that used to require 33 cubic inches of space but now fit into two cubic inches.[12]

· TiNi Aerospace provides smaller franibolts and release mechanisms that enable smaller mass with the same reliability.

· Blue Canyon Technologies,[13] Surrey Satellite Technology,[14] and Millennium Space Systems[15] all offer highly capable reaction wheels for small satellites.

· Small motors are now available to reduce mechanism sizes.[16]

Plans were recently announced at the 2016 Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah, for the manufacture of many different types of small propulsion systems based on electrospray, micro-RF ion, ammonia-fueled micro-resistojet, green monopropellant, and micro-pulsed plasma thrusters. This rapid miniaturization and advancement in hardware required for a capable satellite allows for a smaller, cheaper package to be built with similar payload capabilities as larger, traditional satellites.

Given modern budget constraints, leveraging lower-cost small satellite constellations will allow organizations to provide enough funding and thereby improve revisit times and mitigate the effects of random failures or gaps in coverage. The NASA Sustainable Land Imaging (SLI) Office is targeting a small satellite constellation for the Landsat-10 era to take advantage of increased capabilities, coverage, and revisit times. In 2014, the SLI Office had six companies investigate whether a Landsat-8 compliant optical and thermal imager, including calibration mechanisms, could be built to fit on a small satellite.[17] Multiple fully compliant, fully redundant designs/prototypes were developed for one-fifth the cost of the current Landsat system and presented at the Joint Agency Commercial Imagery Evaluation conference.[18] In 2016, the NASA Earth Science Technology Office awarded six more projects to develop technologies for smaller Landsat-compatible instruments, one even seeking “spectrometer on a chip” technology.[19] NASA is looking to the future, where they can build many smaller versions of the single large satellite to satisfy user requests for more revisits and more coverage.

This evolution of technology that is allowing small satellites to complement and replace earlier generations of space assets comes at a time of accelerated change in related areas such as big data analytics. Even without the explosion of small satellite systems deployed in the form of constellations, data overload is the new reality for users. The amount of data that small satellite constellations are generating is causing small satellite companies to build their overall architecture with vertical integration in mind, ensuring their offerings are more about answering questions than providing pixels. The traditional roles of Earth observation such as satellite operators and the associated “value-added” community are disappearing. DigitalGlobe, HawkEye 360, and smaller companies such as Hera Systems not only offer raw data to customers but also solutions such as apps to extract meaning from the data and merge it with other information to deliver a new level of analytics.[20] Small satellites may become the key element in proving the power of this new space infrastructure.

The next step for small satellite companies to fully compete with or augment large satellite operators will be to improve complex, onboard processing capabilities to allow decision-making and automated tasking without a ground system in the middle. Since small satellites traditionally have less power, mass, and space than large satellites, increased onboard processing capability will be key to pushing small satellites forward. Digital technologies continue to improve at a rate of approximately twice the performance every 18 months in a combination of speed, processing power, or density, therefore, increased computing power on small satellites is becoming a reality. Hera Systems’ designs already incorporate onboard analytics to provide near real-time solutions and alerts,[21] as a complement to the more conventional downlink for ground processing. In addition, onboard computers with enhanced capabilities to support satellite processing are being developed by a number of companies.[22] Applications are being developed for these onboard computers that will allow small satellites to redirect their tasking based on real-time knowledge of what is needed, without a human in the loop. The new threat of cyber attacks in space will require not only large satellites to be protected but also small satellites.[23] Increased processing capabilities will be key to supporting onboard cybersecurity in a small satellite package.

Government and commercial small satellite solutions have begun to converge into compact, sophisticated packages that provide what the end user desires in real time and on demand within the required budgets and timelines. The technology improvements for smaller subsystems and capabilities are allowing small satellites to become the new workhorse throughout the space industry. With low-cost, agile, robust solutions now available in small satellites, the timeline for improving all customer capabilities is now measured in years, not decades.


1 Paul Voosen, “NOAA Issues First Contracts for Private Weather Satellites.” Science, September 16, 2016, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/09/noaa-issues-first-contracts-private-weather-satellites; see more at http://spacenews.com/41836amos-conference-us-air-force-planning-three-satellite-replacement-for/ and http://www.coloradospacenews.com/surrey-satellite-us-wins-nasa-contract-for-landsat-instrument-study/.

2 Elizabeth Howell, “CubeSats: Tiny Payloads, Huge Benefits for Space Research.” SPACE.com, October 6, 2016, http://www.space.com/34324-cubesats.html.

3 “NGA Introductory Contract with Planet to Utilize Small Satellite Imagery.” NGA.mil, October 24, 2016, https://www.nga.mil/MediaRoom/PressReleases/Pages/NGA-introductory-contract-with-Planet-to-utilize-small-satellite-imagery.aspx.

4 Turner Brinton, “Sierra Nevada Ramps Up Small Satellite Assembly Line.” SpaceNews, April 24, 2009, http://spacenews.com/sierra-nevada-ramps-small-satellite-assembly-line/.

5 Debra Werner, “Sure, NewSpace Is a Big Deal.” SpaceNews, April 11, 2016, https://www.spacenewsmag.com/feature/sure-newspace-is-a-big-deal/.

6 Clay Dillow, “Here’s Why Small Satellites Are So Big Right Now.” Fortune, August 4, 2015, http://fortune.com/2015/08/04/small-satellites-newspace/.

7 Rapid Development Spacecraft Office, NASA, “Spacecraft Catalog,” May 16, 2016, https://rsdo.gsfc.nasa.gov/catalog.html.

8 Committee on Earth Sciences Space Study Board, The Role of Small Satellites in NASA and NOAA Earth Observation Programs, Chapter 4. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2000, https://www.nap.edu/read/9819/chapter/6.

9 U.S. Department of Homeland Security, United States Coast Guard, “AIS Class A Ship Static and Voyage Related Data (Message 5),”, http://www.navcen.uscg.gov/?pageName=AISMessagesAStatic.

10 Surrey Satellite Technology, “NovaSAR-S — The Small Satellite Approach to Synthetic Aperture Radar,” https://www.sstl.co.uk/Downloads/Brochures/115184-SSTL-NovaSAR-Brochure-high-res-no-trims.

11 NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “NASA Small Satellites Will Take a Fresh Look at Earth,” November 7, 2016, http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=6671.

12 Honeywell, “Satellite Guidance and Attitude Control,”https://aerospace.honeywell.com/en/products/navigation-and-sensors/satellite-guidance-and-attitude-control.

13 Blue Canyon Technologies, “Reaction Wheels–High Performance Attitude Control,” http://bluecanyontech.com/portfolio-posts/reaction-wheels/.

14 Surrey Satellite Technology, “Attitude and Orbit Control Systems,”http://www.sst-us.com/shop/satellite-subsystems/aocs.

15 Millennium Space Systems, “Reaction Wheel–RWA1000,” http://www.millennium-space.com/brochures/RWA1000Brochure.pdf.

16 Physik Instrumente (PI) GmbH & Co. KG, “PiezoWalk® Piezo Motors — Nanometer Precision with a High Feed Force,” https://www.physikinstrumente.com/en/technology/piezoelectric-drives/piezowalk-piezo-motors/.

17 NASA Goddard, “About NASA Sustainable Land Imaging,” https://sustainablelandimaging.gsfc.nasa.gov/.

18 USGS, “JACIE Program and Presentations,” https://calval.cr.usgs.gov/archive/jacie-2015/3446-2/.

19 NASA Earth Science Technology Office, “17 Projects Awarded Funding Under the Instrument Incubator Program (IIP),” https://esto.nasa.gov/files/solicitations/IIP_16/ROSES2016_IIP_A42_awards.html.

20 Carrie Shaw, “Satellite Companies Moving Markets.” Quandl.com, July 6, 2016, https://blog.quandl.com/alternative-data-satellite-companies.

21 Doug Messier, “NASA, Hera Systems Enter into Remote Sensing Space Act Agreement,” http://www.parabolicarc.com/2016/08/05/nasa-hera-systems-enter-remote-sensing-space-act-agreement/.

22 Ran Ginosar, “Survey of Processors for Space,” http://www.ramon-chips.com/papers/SurveySpaceProcessors-DASIA2012-paper.pdf.

23 The Aerospace Corporation, “The Cyberspace Operational Environment,” http://www.aerospace.org/research/mission-assurance/cyber-security/.


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