Advances and Challenges for Small Sats

Industry and government experts discuss evolving ecosystem, hurdles, and what’s on the horizon for small sats at USGIF workshop


As small sat technologies continue to progress, a robust industrial ecosystem is forming, and the next five to 10 years will see more small sats used for imaging, weather, communications, and experimentation, according to community experts at USGIF’s fourth Small Satellite Workshop. Increasingly, the technology is being looked to as a complementary layer to large-scale systems and a necessary approach to space-based resiliency and deterrence.

The workshop, sponsored by Planet, was held March 6-7 at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) Eastern campus in Springfield, Va. The program was developed in collaboration with the USGIF’s Small Satellite Working Group and titled “Evolving Capabilities.” The first day was unclassified and the second was classified.

In a keynote address, Deborah Lee James, the 23rd Secretary of the U.S. Air Force, shared reflections and predictions: “We’re only just at the cusp of the Space Renaissance period we have now entered,” she said, calling the present a time of innovation and investor excitement, with promises for new space exploration and new ways of doing business. 

Advancements and Use Cases

The unclassified agenda included three panel discussions featuring a range of industry experts. In a panel on small sat advancements, James Doggett, a program manager with HawkEye 360, said the small sat ecosystem is seeing specialization at every level, which represents a “maturation of the industry” and allows players to focus on specific products rather than infrastructure needs.

For example, water-based propulsion is expanding the envelope of available missions, and ground-stations-as-a-service is on the horizon, according to Doggett.

Al League, chief innovation officer with Radiant Solutions/Space Systems Loral, said small sats represent not only the democratization of space, but also the democratization of information. League listed on-orbit services such as the ability to repurpose, refuel, and restore systems in space as the next evolution in the ecosystem.

As the technology advances, new use cases continue to be discovered as well. Stephane Germain, CEO of GHG Satellite, shared how his company uses small sats to monitor industrial emissions for commercial clients. For example, hydroelectric companies seek to demonstrate their emissions are low and therefore qualify for green power contracts.  

In a later panel focused on analytic use cases, Julie Baker, vice president of operations for Ursa Space Systems—which brings data from multiple suppliers together to provide analytics-as-a-service—said small sat data has many applications for the oil and gas, energy, and financial sectors. But, she warned, “There’s a huge gap between analytics and what customers actually need.”

Melanie Corcoran, who manages government business POCs for Descartes Labs, further articulated the need to provide direct insights, asking the audience, “If a picture is worth 1,000 words, how much is an answer worth?”

Corcoran described how Descartes is providing turnkey analysis for trading.

“It turns out Wall Street and the Intelligence Community have the same needs, they just go about it in different ways,” she said.

However, Corcoran said, having the capabilities but not the ability to deliver them in way consistent with government security is “one of the biggest stumbling blocks to unleashing the power [of small sats].”

Emerging Challenges

Another panel discussed a variety of additional small sat-related challenges. Randy Leiter, founder and CEO of Aerolight Technologies, outlined challenges in manufacturing and development, including part selection, supply chain integrity, and systems engineering assurance—all of which result in longer lead times. According to Leiter, there is a lot of interest in small sats among suppliers, but currently a limited market.

Tony Lin, a spectrum lawyer with Hogan Lovells, said it takes about a year for a new satellite to be assigned a frequency.

“It’s hard for folks in Silicon Valley who work at the speed of the internet to come to D.C. and work at the speed of government,” he said. However, he continued, many experts are looking to solve the “spectrum crunch” and are exploring alternative ways to get data to the ground.

Kevin Pomfret, a partner with Williams Mullen, outlined geospatial law and policy concerns including privacy, retirement and disposal of systems, and intellectual property disputes when products are created with data from many different sources.

“As small sat technology pushes the limits … it calls for new processes to be put in place,” Pomfret said, noting law and policy do not advance as quickly as capabilities do.

Frank Backes, vice president of business development with Kratos, said space assets are an attractive target for cyber attacks, and emphasized the need to apply the same technology used to protect ground-based communications links for space-to-ground communications.

Small Sats and the DoD

Two U.S. Department of Defense representatives gave unclassified presentations. Maj. Steven Pugh, program lead for space enterprise prototypes, advanced systems and development with the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMEC), gave an overview of the new Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC) Other Transaction (OT) authority.

OT contract vehicles are intended to foster rapid contracting, open collaboration between industry and government, and increased participation from smaller, nontraditional businesses. In November, SMC selected Advanced Technology International (ATI) to manage the SpEC OT and accelerate space-related prototype development, including small sats.

Pugh described OTs as a lower risk, lower cost approach to space innovation.

“The highest levels of leadership in the Air Force are looking at how we get solutions that may have more risk but a lot more reward,” he said. He added that although OTs are intended to attract nontraditional contractors, including those who may not have previous government experience, they aren’t meant to disregard larger, traditional contractors.

“We want to have partnerships built and have an avenue to do that,” Pugh said.

To date, the ATI-led consortium has attracted more than 115 members, and ATI has released two SpEC requirements: one for small sat tactics, techniques, and procedures; and another for overhead persistent infrared surveillance.

Though the Air Force has authorized a $100 million ceiling for SpEC, Pugh posited the extensive interest in the program might lead to an increase.

Later in the day, Dr. John Stopher, director of the Principal DoD Space Advisor Staff, who is responsible for integrating and overseeing all national security space capabilities, highlighted the need to assess and convey mission value with regard to small sats.

“I’m not against [small sats], but have found when people talk about small sats they don’t often talk about mission,” Stopher said. “I want to focus on what our mission is, and if small sats can do it, that’s great.”

He pointed to the most recent National Space Strategy, which emphasizes, among other things, a need for mission assurance, resiliency, and reconstitution.

“These are areas where there might be some opportunities for small sats,” Pugh said, adding that battlefield management, which is today performed by Boeing’s JSTARS, may be another area of opportunity. “Moving that to space is something we’re very seriously considering.”

Photo Credit: NASA JPL

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