SmallSats = Space Resiliency

The benefits and challenges of driving resiliency through SmallSats


It’s much more difficult to destroy numerous small satellites compared to a single large one. Therefore, in addition to their cost and agility, SmallSats may also offer a solution to help increase the resiliency of U.S. space systems, according to speakers at a GEOINT 2015 breakout discussion Tuesday afternoon.

If an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon destroys one satellite in a constellation of hundreds, the constellation can continue to function with little impact, said Thomas Webber, head of the Space and Strategic Systems Directorate at U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s Technical Center.

“If you have one large satellite to take out, one ASAT is a relatively cheap return on investment,” Webber said. “If you have dozens or hundreds of satellites providing capability, taking out one, two, or even 10 does not [make much of a dent].”

Having many small, short-lived satellites could also offer more frequent opportunities for technology refresh, and would allow spacecraft to be more easily tailored to specific missions and regions, Webber added. He emphasized SmallSats are intended to augment rather than replace larger spacecraft.

Mark Choiniere, director of the advanced development office inside NGA’s InnoVision Directorate, said he, too, is convinced SmallSats can offer more agility. Choiniere has developed and is exploring a 10-satellite concept that would launch a mix of SmallSats from government, industry, and academia over the course of two years.

But Choiniere and Webber agreed launch costs need to be greatly reduced if SmallSats are to become more prevalent.

“If [you’re] going to launch a $200,000 satellite … you don’t want to launch on a $60 million rocket,” Webber said.

Gordon Roesler, program manager in the tactical technology office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, said the agency is developing low-cost ways to launch SmallSats, including a reusable unmanned spaceplane and a launch vehicle attached to an F-15 fighter jet.

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