Small Things in the Great Void
Here at the Superposition, we recently talked about space travel and how aspirational goals lead to ground-breaking achievements. Today, let’s take a more granular look at space innovation: what small steps are humans taking to prepare for the giant leaps?
Over the past two decades, there has been steady growth in the number of uncrewed launches occurring every year. In the public sector, we have seen more launches in the EU, Japan and India. This is no longer a game dominated by the old guard of the United States, Russia and China.
Within the same time frame, the private sector has exploded: of course, the big names like SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic dominate headlines with their iterative launches. The largest of their milestones being reusable rockets, government contracts, private satellite constellations and crewed expeditions. However, there are countless smaller companies offering products and services that are breaking into spaceflight and its associated fields.
The demand continues to outpace supply, even with outrageously high barriers to entry. Rideshare services, like the ones offered by SpaceX, open the door to space by offering slots on their launches to be deployed at the chosen orbital perigee and apogee. It is less of an Uber ride and more like taking the bus. You end up in the right part of town, but you still have to find your way home.
Buying a rideshare on a SpaceX flight costs $1,000,000 for your bus ticket, and you can have up to 450kg of mass and about 1 cubic meter of space all to yourself. If your satellite is significantly smaller than that, you can get a share of a rideshare: normally brokered through a third party. The technology of satellites, just like cellphones did in the aughts, is shrinking, and fast. Smallsats pack staggering amounts of power into tiny devices, and are the defining factor for new space objects.
Smallsats are a Big Deal
Small satellites, or smallsats, is a bit of a misleading term. NASA calls smallsats anything under 180kg, however, in classic, bureaucratic fashion, the FAA defines “small satellites” as 601 to 1200kg. The new space industry definition of smallsats is up to 600kg, and is mostly made up of micro and mini satellites. Below this is the 10kg and under category, nano- and picosatellites, more frequently called cubesats, because of the 10cm³ units they are measured in.
Of the smallsats launched in the past three years, OneWeb and Starlink are the lion’s share as both compete to build global satellite internet service with a combined total of over 2,000 smallsats so far. Neither company plans to slow down either, with Starlink aiming for almost 30,000 units in its constellation. The number of launches largely depends on the success of SpaceX’s Raptor engine and Starship program, which is currently caught up in development hell.
When you remove these outliers, the data begins to unfold — since 2017, nanosats, weighing between one and 10kg represent roughly two-thirds of the total objects launched. Over that same time period, picosatellites have seen steady growth in the total number of objects launched as well. These are the newcomers in new space: operating with limited resources and launching satellites that fit inside the palm of your hand.
Nanosatellites are a Really Big Deal
As I said before, getting into space is expensive, but nano and picosatellites tackle all of the big problems. Most obvious, less mass means a cheaper ticket, but these tiny devices go way beyond.
Success in space has a much higher bar than here on Earth. Your technology or innovation is all well and good on the ground, but if it can’t survive in the vacuous and unknowable void that is space, you won’t go far. A proof of concept weighs heavier than almost every other field, but unlocks additional funding and media attention just the same. Instead of worrying about greater aspirations, a CubeSat can focus on its personal definition of success.
To that end, nano and picosatellites both are highly customizable, and can be individual units, or daisy-chains that operate synchronously over a wider range. They cater to both long-term timetables with low-draw units or quick turnover operational checks. They can operate communications, sensing or development platforms. They are also both substantially less expensive and time consuming to build than larger satellites. A cluster of picosatellites can be built in a fraction of the time, and give a rich dataset that answers exactly the questions set before it.
Small Things, Big Steps
The former administration outlined microgravity research as a top priority for United States space programs, but will the private sector beat them to the punch? If you thought getting into space was hard, try getting a research project onto the International Space Station. With smallsats, you can cut through all the red tape and get right to the science.
We would love to see biotech or medical research put to use on a smallsat. On Earth, cellular printing is done onto a supportive, scaffolding system to prevent the tissue from collapsing under its own weight. However, in the microgravity found in low Earth orbit, cells or tissues being printed would not need any structured forms. Stem cells have also been found to perform differently in microgravity than on Earth. We could see further study of mesenchymal stem cells and their proliferation in microgravity occurring on a smallsat as well.
The opportunities for research and development on smallsats cracks new space wide open. As the smallsat boom continues, we are eager to see what dreams become tiny, orbital realities.