Building More Affordable and Resilient Space Systems

USGIF establishes SmallSat Working Group


Small satellites, often called SmallSats, have existed for more than 30 years, but recently their popularity and utility have spiked. This new attention can be partly attributed to the White House National Space Policy released in 2010, which called for the United States to develop and exercise capabilities to operate through a disrupted space environment, and challenged the military and intelligence communities to build more resilient space architecture.

One way of achieving this is disaggregated space architectures, which means to have a large number of smaller, low-cost satellites performing missions, rather than a lesser number of exquisite satellites.

In an effort to help build traction for SmallSats in the GEOINT Community, a USGIF Small Satellite Working Group (SmallSat WG) was chartered in September, making it the eleventh working group currently governed by USGIF.

“Small spacecraft is not a new thing,” said Jessica “J.B.” Young, Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ principal investigator for CubeSat research and development and SmallSat WG co-chair. “There are now more applications and uses for them, and the SmallSat community is starting to grow rapidly.”

This illustration depicts a constellation of Skybox SmallSats. Photo credit: Skybox Imaging

According to the group’s charter, its overall mission is to inform and educate the GEOINT Community on a common understanding of SmallSat systems and associated tasking, processing, exploitation, and dissemination systems, aiming to form a community of interest in national space policies and current and emerging mission needs and capabilities. Additionally, the group hopes to increase awareness about the capabilities of SmallSats and their value to both government and industry.

“One of our main objectives is to influence decision makers to support and fund more SmallSat projects,” Young said. “There are many folks out there that are not supportive of small satellites and think they aren’t capable enough, so it’s important we educate the GEOINT Community and fill these gaps.”

The idea to create a USGIF SmallSat working group was fueled at the GEOINT 2013* Symposium in April 2014, when the Foundation hosted several SmallSat-related events, including a flash talk with panelists representing several USGIF member organizations. Young said there was a lot of positive response from Symposium attendees, which powered the standup of the group.

“The defense and intelligence community, where most of the money is spent on satellite information collection, has never looked at SmallSats as capable of resolving their pressing needs,” said Rob Zitz, SmallSat WG co-chair and chief systems architect for Leidos. “I think that’s changing now—the need for resilience and improved technology has caused the change—and the small satellite community is starting to see the defense and intelligence community seek more understanding about SmallSat capabilities.”

This Cubesat from Spire (formerly Nanosatisfi) is one of the standard form factors for a SmallSat. Photo credit: Spire

Young and Zitz have organized several events to get the working group off the ground. The group attended the 2014 Small Satellite Conference at Utah State University in August and held a casual meeting to discuss findings and observations from the event.

“We tapped into the SmallSat community to get feedback on how to further our group and educate the GEOINT Community,” Young said.

Not only does the group host monthly meetings, but Zitz and Young also strive to make them engaging and interactive. In September, the working group’s monthly meeting included a panel discussion with representatives from government agencies who examined the tactical and national needs addressed by current and future SmallSat programs.

To maintain momentum, the SmallSat WG plans to continue to engage the GEOINT Community at its monthly meetings, special events, and at the GEOINT 2015 Symposium, June 22-25, in Washington, D.C.

“We want SmallSats to be viewed as mainstream GEOINT capabilities—it’s not just another science project,” Zitz said.

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