Small Satellites, Big Opportunities

Panel predicts bright future for SmallSats


Sometimes, big things come in small packages. Nowhere is that more evident than with the advent of small satellites, otherwise known as SmallSats. Although each weighs less than 200 kilograms—approximately the size of a washing machine—SmallSats promise to fundamentally change the way commercial satellite imagery is collected, accessed, analyzed, and distributed, panelists agreed Monday during the “Utilizing Commercial Space and SmallSat Assets” concurrent session at GEOINT Foreword.

Led by Moderator Jessica “JB” Young, a mechanical engineer at Lockheed Martin and co-chair of USGIF’s SmallSat Working Group, the panel explored the abundant benefit of SmallSats.

“There is a burgeoning opportunity in industry where there are people thinking creatively about the use of small spacecraft,” said Richard Leshner, director of government affairs for SmallSat innovator Planet Labs.

Leshner described SmallSats as a “sandbox for creativity and innovation” due to their low cost and rapid development cycle.

Inside the SmallSat “sandbox,” industry and government will play side by side, said National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Staff Officer Thomas Doyne.

“We recognize the disruptive innovation that is occurring in industry and we are working to create a community process by which we ride this wave of innovation, we know how to adopt or adapt it, and we do it quickly,” Doyne said.

As customers, government agencies will leverage SmallSats to achieve persistent situational awareness across a wide swathe of missions, of which one of the most essential will be weather forecasting, according to Chris Ruf, principal investigator for NASA’s Earth Venture mission.

“The biggest bang for the buck in terms of improving [weather forecasts] is in reducing the sampling times [of weather satellites],” Ruf said. “The right way to reduce sampling times is to get more satellites up there, and the only way to do that is through small satellites.”

In a Q&A with audience members, panelists acknowledged SmallSats still face many hurdles, including lower image clarity and accuracy, and a new and unknown business model. However, they were confident prospects remain strong.

“If you look at this industry, historically there have been four barriers that have impeded wide-scale adoption: cost, regulatory constraints, access, and distribution,” said Wade Larson, CEO of SmallSat company UrtheCast. “All of those barriers are starting to crumble.”

Concluded Doyne: “We have to work with our industry partners, because they’re not waiting for us.”

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