Enabling New Space

Small sat experts discuss opportunities, barriers to innovation


Leading experts in the small satellite market gathered at GEOINT 2017 for USGIF’s Small Satellite Working Group meeting to discuss the modern space landscape and changes required to break barriers and foster innovation in the small sat community.

Moderator Rob Zitz, co-chair of the working group and a senior vice president for MDA, posed the question: “How do we go faster? How do we help government agencies and others who want new space get there sooner?”

A principal topic of discussion was the interplay between commercial and government space initiatives. In the current market, said John Hanna, VP of government programs for Spaceflight Industries, it’s extremely hard for startups and commercial space actors to garner timely licensing and funding from government. He continued, saying until stronger space leadership is established in the Pentagon, some companies will choose to turn away from government altogether.

Marcy Steinke, DigitalGlobe’s senior VP of government relations and public policy, said a major regulatory shift on Capitol Hill is necessary to take commercial satellite capabilities to the next level. The existing legislation overseeing the industry—the Land Remote Sensing Act—was established in 1992, she said, voicing her support for a new bill currently making rounds in Congress.

According to Keith Johnson, CTO and chief engineer with Leidos, part of that government-commercial interplay needs to include the establishment of space traffic management and situational awareness. This isn’t an exclusively government-oriented problem—commercial actors need to collaborate as well. “Rules of the road” are imperative to govern the congested space of the future and to limit buildup of debris. The sustainability of large-scale small-sat launches was brought into question, and Steinke referenced the possibility of increased tracking efforts to enhance space object awareness.

Start a conversation with people that don’t know anything about small sats.” —Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Consultant

National security consultant Jeff “Skunk” Baxter mentioned the importance of fresh, innovative thought leadership from outside the Intelligence Community.

“Start a conversation with people that don’t know anything about small sats,” Baxter said. “It will stimulate ideas, it will stimulate concepts, and it will hopefully get us further down the line,” he said.

Zitz synthesized the discussion as such: “The threat we face requires us to change space architecture to make it more resilient. One way to do that is to move to smaller satellites in larger numbers. Policy or funding or cultural barriers in the way of moving to smaller satellites are things we as a community have to address and overcome.”

Yet the future of space looks promising. In the next few years, NASA plans to have repair robots in orbit, directly servicing deployed satellites. Automation will allow analysts to keep up with the increasing collection of vast amounts of data. Steve Jacques, managing partner of Jacques and Associates, said engineers are actively developing onboard data processors that would revolutionize the way information is disseminated. Concluded Hanna, “It’s a great space to be in.”

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