The Maturation of SmallSats

SmallSats hold tremendous potential for the commercial realm and federal government


A tremendous paradigm shift is occurring in the satellite industry that harkens back more than three decades to when the personal computer disrupted mainframe computing.

SmallSats, and their most popular sub-classification, CubeSats, hold tremendous utility and potential, not only in the commercial realm, but for the federal government as well.

“The talk you hear from traditional satellite companies is almost word-for-word what you would hear from traditional computer companies back in the early ’80s,” said Peter Platzer, co-founder and CEO of CubeSat provider Nanosatisfi. “People said, ‘You can’t do anything useful with a PC—it’s not powerful enough!’”

Following the successful November launch of SkyBox Imaging’s SkySat-1—a 100-kilogram SmallSat—and the company’s subsequent production of sub-meter imagery and high-definition video, skeptics are taking notice. Not only has this milestone proven that a small, lightweight, and inexpensive satellite can pack power, it also demonstrates that imagery may just be the killer application for SmallSats.

With SkyBox planning a total constellation of 24 satellites and other start-ups such as Planet Labs—with its flock of 28 “Dove” CubeSats launching from the International Space Station in Q1 2014—the SmallSat boom is just beginning.

The defense and intelligence communities are jumping on the bandwagon as well, with the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL), the U.S. Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC), and the U.S. Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space Office (ORS), among others, deploying CubeSats for research and development.

These initiatives are intended to complement, not replace, the capabilities of large commercial imagery providers and national technical means (NTM), as well as to increase global awareness of GEOINT, according to many subject matter experts.

Those who’ve been in the geospatial industry the longest note the SmallSat topic is not new—it gets revisited about every 10 years. “What’s different this time?” they asked.

SmallSats have been around for more than 30 years. Surrey Satellite Technology launched its first SmallSat in 1981. The Clementine SmallSat mission, led by the late Pete Rustan, then mission manager for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, mapped the surface of the moon in 1994. And IKONOS, the world’s first high-resolution commercial imagery satellite, launched in 1999, weighing 720 kilograms—not too much more than some of today’s largest SmallSats. Still, the answer to “What’s different this time?” is “Plenty.”

CubeSats have garnered popularity far beyond university labs. The on-demand access to geospatial information now available on smartphones has brought the value of commercial imagery into the public eye and piqued the interest of many diverse industries. The price of entry to space and cost per kilogram for hardware has plummeted. Meanwhile, imaging payloads have become more sophisticated and lighter in weight, in addition to the proliferation of technology that can be leveraged from other sectors. In short, the satellite industry is in the midst of welcome disruption.

Why Downsize?

There are many strategic and tactical antecedents to the rise of SmallSats. They offer greater revisit rates, significantly lower costs, the ability to update technology more frequently, and decreased vulnerability to attack.

Surrey Satellite Technology has launched 41 SmallSats since 1981, but the recent sea change the company has witnessed is improvements in technology driving down price performance points, according to Dr. John Paffett, CEO of the British-based company’s U.S. subsidiary.

For example, Surrey is currently developing three 1-meter resolution, earth observation satellites weighing 400 kilograms each for its spin-off company Disaster Monitoring Constellation International Imagery (DMCii). The total cost for the three spacecraft, including launch, insurance, and operations for seven years, will be around $160 million, Paffett said.

For comparison, DigitalGlobe awarded $307 million worth of contracts in 2010 to build WorldView-3, and NTM satellites can reach price points reportedly in the billions.

The shorter development cycle and lifespan for smaller satellites also make it quicker and less expensive to get the latest capabilities into space.

“Instead of being stuck with an iPhone 3G for years, you can go through iterations quicker to the 5S,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. David Illsley, chief of NRO’s overhead solutions branch.

On Jan. 8, Gen. William Shelton, commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, in a speech at George Washington University, addressed the increasing vulnerability of defense satellites in a future space conflict and cited a shift to SmallSats as potential preemptive action. Not only did China demonstrate its ability to destroy a satellite in orbit by targeting one of its own systems in 2007, but space debris is a growing concern as well.

In the event of such an attack, SmallSats are more difficult to hit, easier to replenish, and provide a cost-benefit equation that works in favor of the U.S. One missile used to shoot down a satellite costs considerably more than one SmallSat does to build, and a nation with only a few exquisite satellites is easier to cripple than one with dozens or hundreds of SmallSats.

SmallSat proponents don’t deny the systems also have limitations. Perhaps the most noticeable trade-off is sacrificing higher resolution for a greater revisit rate, according to Andre Doumitt, founder and CEO of Digital AdopXion, which identifies and evaluates emerging technologies that meet the needs of the DoD and Intelligence Community.

“Can we trade exquisite type imagery for a better revisit rate?” Doumitt asked. Certainly, depending upon the mission. “Maybe I’m happy with 1-meter resolution every six hours rather than 5-centimeter resolution every three days,” he added.

Illsley revisited his smartphone analogy, comparing a digital SLR camera to an iPhone.

“They both take pictures,” he said. “One is good for posting pictures to Facebook when you’re with friends at a concert, but the other would be better for wedding pictures.”

The U.S. Army may be willing to make this compromise to better support soldiers at the extreme edge, according to John London, SmallSat program manager with SMDC.

“What we’re talking about is not necessarily quality but more quantity and timeliness,” London said. “We’re hoping that we can provide medium-resolution imagery to a warfighter [via a mobile device] within one to two minutes of when he or she requests it. That’s game-changing.”

SMDC has a joint capability technology demonstration in process to explore the viability of the concept London described using its Kestrel Eye Block 2 CubeSat.

But the promise of high revisit rates is spurring interest far beyond the defense and intelligence communities.

“You can imagine how this increased revisit rate could drive innovation in areas that might not be obvious to us now,” Doumitt said. “It’s another part of why you’ll see investors putting in lots of venture capital to SmallSat companies.”

JunkSats Grow Up

While the mainframe vs. PC debate raged in the ’80s, SmallSats were still being referred to as “JunkSats.” In the late ’90s, Stanford University’s Bob Twiggs was inspired by a four-inch plastic box used to display the then mega-popular Ty Beanie Babies. Twiggs used the display box as a model to develop a CubeSat, and in 1999, in collaboration with Jordi Puig-Suari at California Polytechnic State University, developed what is now the CubeSat standard: 1U, or 10x10x10 centimeters. Historically, larger companies and economies were the only actors in space, but today, the CubeSat is largely responsible for changing this norm.

The vision for Skybox began in 2009 when the four founders wrote a business plan as part of a Stanford graduate entrepreneurship course. The company has since raised $91 million in funding, all from private investors. In 2010, Planet Labs was founded by three former NASA scientists, and has since collected a total of $13.1 million in funding from venture capital firms.

With “decreased barriers to entry” and a lower amount of capital required to build a “viable product”—terms investors salivate over—venture capitalists are more willing than ever to take a risk on SmallSats.

“There is a proliferation of tools and visualization engines out there that allow the average customer and consumer to see the world. This allows people to get an understanding of what could be done with the data,” said Robbie Schingler, president and COO of Planet Labs.

Although Skybox and Planet Labs differ in many ways, they both share a vision to shift the industry from mapping to monitoring.

Skybox is focused on feature extractions, algorithms, and specific domain knowledge and toolsets tailored to a range of industries. The goal for its constellation is to yield analysis and insight—rendering the image “almost irrelevant,” according to John Fenwick, vice president of flight operations.

“The world is awash in pixels these days,” Fenwick said. “Having someone go through and manually look at each one is impossible. In order to truly move from mapping to monitoring, there has to be creativity in how the data is looked at.”

Customers without a background in the geospatial sciences may not understand the power in a satellite image. For them, Skybox will go beyond the pixels to provide data streams that can enable decisions using information such as parking lot activity or vegetation health.

For customers who are more geospatially literate, Skybox also offers a service called SkyNode, which allows them to directly task a satellite and download imagery within 20 minutes. Japan Space Imaging was recently announced as the first SkyNode customer, and several more will be announced in the coming months, Fenwick said.

Conversely, part of Planet Labs’ strategy is not to task its satellites.

“Our satellites are always on, always taking a picture of the land and transmitting,” Schingler said.

Planet Labs data will be online and customers will “pay as they go.” The founders believe this approach will allow the company to serendipitously see change, for example, imaging a portion of a coastline long before anyone knows it will be devastated by a major storm.

Both companies have already seen interest from a wide range of customers, including agricultural organizations, relief agencies, corporations, and government entities.

“There’s a tremendous amount of disruption to the established space programs by these new SmallSats, and there’s a lot of activity in NewSpace,” said Anne Miglarese, president and CEO of PlanetiQ, which aims to launch a con- stellation of 12 SmallSats as the nation’s first commercial weather satellites.

“NewSpace,” according to Miglarese, a veteran of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, pertains to tech start-ups that strive to do things differently than the traditional space and defense industrial base.

“NewSpace isn’t ‘Am I a SmallSat?’ or ‘Am I a CubeSat?’” she said. “It’s, ‘Am I coming at this from a totally different direction and innovating?’”

A Sandbox in Orbit

SmallSats fuel innovation for established space programs as well, albeit in a different way, mainly through the use of CubeSats for research and development.

Take the NRO’s CubeSat Program, which has launched CubeSats on two rideshare missions in two years. In 2012, the NRO launched 11 CubeSats on NROL-36, five sponsored by NRO and six sponsored by NASA; and in December 2013, more than 48 CubeSats vied for 12 seats on the NROL-39 rideshare mission.

“This is a unique opportunity,” said Tina Harrington, director of NRO’s signals intelligence systems acquisition directorate, as the guest speaker at USGIF’s GEOINTeraction Tuesday networking event in November. “With CubeSats, we have the opportunity to put some technologies up that might not have been ready for primetime.”

At a price tag of $1 to $3 million, she added, “CubeSats are the place to be adventurous.”

The NRO uses CubeSats to test space weather observations, solar cells, solar sails, batteries, carbon nanotubes, ion electrospray propulsion, and more, according to Illsley.

Government-built or sponsored CubeSats also have the advantage of hitching rides into orbit with a primary spacecraft. In November, the Air Force’s ORS launched 28 CubeSats aboard the ORS-3 Enabler Mission, alongside the much larger Air Force Space Test Program Satellite-3. A wide range of university and federal organizations provided the 28 CubeSats to support myriad scientific and operational missions.

NASA JPL employs CubeSats to perform scientific measurements that typically couldn’t be conducted using a larger, single system. Technologies of particular interest to the GEOINT Community, according to Dr. Charles Norton, a principal technologist and program area manager with the lab, are new types of high-performance imaging detectors and radiation-hardened flight computers.

The Army’s Kestrel Eye CubeSat holds promise but is currently sitting on a shelf awaiting a ride to space to prove the technology, London said. This is where a strong industrial base is critical.

Industry is lining up to see what’s next for SmallSats, according to Doumitt. Providers of modeling and simulation, engineering, components, communications, telemetry, and launch vehicles all have the potential to benefit, he said.

According to Andrew Kalman, Ph.D., president of CubeSat provider Pumpkin Inc., the government also needs to purchase SmallSats in more significant numbers to maintain a strong industrial base.

“Either the government has to go out and pour money into these companies, or have a more open standard, saying, ‘Hey, we have these CubeSats that can do this, go out and buy those,’” Kalman said. “We have to establish a market for suppliers feeding in at reasonable quantities. That doesn’t exist right now.”

Platzer agreed there is still work to be done to establish a strong supply chain.

“The U.S. was the one that invented the CubeSat standard,” he said. “And today, the U.S. is the least relevant supplier market for CubeSats.”

The Genie is Out

The SmallSat supply chain should come into its own as the niche expands during the next decade. In the U.S., more than 70 companies, 50 universities, and 17 government entities are involved with SmallSats, according to Illsley. Internationally, more than 41 universities are in the arena. And all predictions reflect that these numbers will continue to rise.

There’s no way for the trend to go but forward, Illsley said. “It’s kind of like trying to put the genie back in the bottle. Everyone else in the world is on this train with CubeSats.”

Over the next few years, SmallSats will continue to mature in many areas. A major one, according to Norton, is propulsion.

“Most of these are free flyers … to be able to perform orbit transfers and other activities such as proximity operations, I think propulsion is a big area where we’ll see improvements in the next few years,” Norton said.

Schingler predicts SmallSats will be used even more for research and development, a concept he calls “agile aerospace.” Planet Labs launched four Flock satellites as tech demos prior to launching its Dove constellation, a practice he believes will become more common.

“The way spacecraft get designed today is one where a design gets locked in really early on with the state-of-the-art architecture at the highest level of heritage possible,” Schingler said. “SmallSats will change a bit of the posture.”

SmallSats will also begin to fuse data—with other SmallSats, with larger satellites, and with a variety of data sources. Constellations of SmallSats will be banded together to partially compensate for performance or resolution limitations, still at a lower cost than one large satellite. Systems providers and third parties will gain access to disparate data sources and merge them to create more value-added products.

Fenwick said Skybox is actively partnering with other data sources, and sees its capabilities as complementary to established commercial imagery providers such as DigitalGlobe.

“We understand that ours is a very powerful data source, but is not the only one,” Fenwick said.

Schingler agrees: “When people begin to think about the space segment differently, mission planners and principal investigators will begin to think about them as distributed assets. You don’t need to have one satellite do every-thing when you can have 30 satellites doing three-quarters.”

This approach enabled by the NewSpace and SmallSat movements will drive a new era of responsiveness and resilience, according to Miglarese.

“It holds a lot of advantages to both the warfighter and the Intelligence Community,” she said.


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