The Next Era of the Small Sat Revolution

Experts gather at USGIF workshop to discuss data analytics, launch, and the future


Since USGIF’s first Small Satellite Workshop in 2015, the conversation has evolved significantly from a focus on form factors to an emphasis on data and analysis.

“The last 10 years answered, ‘What is the utility of a small sat?’” said Dr. Peter Wegner, chief strategy officer of Spaceflight Industries, as he moderated a panel discussion at the most recent workshop. “Now, we’re starting to answer, ‘How do you fuse all of this data together?’”

Nearly 300 people attended the unclassified portion of USGIF’s fifth Small Satellite Workshop Feb. 19 at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) in Springfield, Va.

The discussions focused on the latest industry advancements in small satellites and launch, as well as the future of the technology and how the Intelligence Community can help those goals to be realized.

Ongoing Industry Innovation

Two of the day’s panel discussions focused on the continuous small satellite advances being made by commercial providers. Panelist Keith Barber, VP of federal strategic partnerships for Planet, shared how the company has been able to innovate as a result of both government and commercial investments. One use case he shared was the Russian nuclear triad—daily monitoring of air, sea, and land targets over a vast geography. Planet’s growing portfolio of 3-meter-resolution Dove small sats paired with 1-meter SkySats allow it to tip and cue when an area or target requires more detailed observation.

The company’s new analytics dashboard offers “efficiencies to gain across the board,” Barber said. “There’s a lot of content being created every single day that’s going to have to get looked at.”

David Scavo, a solutions engineer with geospatial analytics provider Orbital Insight, shared how the company is leveraging artificial intelligence and computer vision to keep pace with the growing rate of pixels and provide “sensemaking” from “detection to consequence.”

“For example, computer vision can do the burdensome and time-consuming task of counting tens of thousands of cars and give analysts something to look at to tip and cue,” Scavo said.

Increasingly, the human insights enabled by small sats are becoming the primary focus of the technology.

“In some examples, the last thing people care about is the image,” Barber said. “But they do care about the speed, the analysis.”

Payam Banazadeh, CEO of Capella Space, said his company is on a mission to “bring SAR back home” on the commercial side, with the goal to launch a fleet of 36 small sats to provide high-resolution, persistent, global coverage. Capella’s satellites weigh 40 kilograms on the ground, then transform into larger structures once on orbit. The company launched its first satellite, dubbed Denali, in December, and plans to launch its second, Sequoia, this summer.

“36 satellites spread equally within many [orbital] planes,” Banazadeh said. “Three years ago, that was hard—today it’s only hard because of launch.”

Launch is the next evolution of the small satellite revolution, according to the panelists, who posited the community is on the precipice of small sat launch becoming more accessible.

Advances in Launch Technology

Building upon the conversation, another panel of experts focused entirely on this topic.

Stella Guillen, VP of sales and marketing for Arianespace, said her company currently has three commercial launch vehicles and promotes its ability to launch any mass, to any orbit, at any time. With 60% of the company’s business being commercial, they are adapting to accommodate small sats. In August, Arianespace had its first purely rideshare mission, and it is currently building two new launch vehicles, one of which is specifically designed with small sats in mind.

Vector Launch was founded in 2016 with the goal of creating small sat launch vehicles at a new price point, according to Greg Orndorff, VP of government services. The company’s Vector-R solution will be able to launch payloads of up to 60 kilograms at a price point of approximately $1.5M, and its Vector-H will handle payloads of up to 290 kilograms for around $4.5M.

Vector’s portable, trailer-based infrastructure offers a turnkey solution, though will not include mission assurance. Orndorff said the company has already made two Vector-R sales and is reserving two vehicles for the DARPA Launch Challenge later this year.

VOX Space, a subsidiary of Virgin Orbit, is developing the capability to quickly send small satellites into low Earth orbit using its LauncherOne two-stage rocket, which is deployed from a Virgin 747 aircraft.

In theory, this method could allow for launch from any airport, according to Dan Burkett, director of strategy and business development, who added the company recently received Federal Aviation Administration approval for four launch sites.

Potential challenges that lie ahead for these capabilities include concerns about crowded skies, particularly in low Earth orbit, as well as interference with national airspace. But the panelists were optimistic.

“Richard Branson (founder of the Virgin Group) is on a mission to open space to everyone,” Burkett said, adding that creating more responsive launch technologies will yield capabilities for industries and governments alike.

Democratizing Space

Shayn Hawthorne, a senior manager with Amazon Web Services (AWS), echoed Burkett’s enthusiasm for the democratization of space, and shared a vision in which people from any country can put up a satellite and collect data to share with the world. AWS is working to help satellites seamlessly connect with ground stations and to better fuse and share data from disparate sources.

Though venture capital has been flowing into new space companies for the past several years, some warned about the risk of the bubble bursting.

“The loop is not getting closed because these companies aren’t being purchased, said Capella’s Banazadeh. “If we don’t start seeing a lot of exits … we won’t see as much VC coming in.”

Some potential solutions to this, according to panelists, would be investments in space-based innovation by prime contractors or perhaps government-led merger and acquisition policies.

“Commercial SAR in the U.S. is 10 years behind other countries [such as Italy and France],” Banazadeh continued. “We need the support of government to have a leg up. If we want to lead we need to change how we do business and sponsor commercial capabilities more.”

Banazadeh’s vision is for the entire Earth to become a database that can be queried in real-time to help solve global challenges. Similarly, Hawthorne noted there is a worldwide, customer-driven need for data. But how does the community achieve these goals?

Chirag Parikh, director of NGA’s Office of Sciences and Methodologies, gave a keynote address in which he said, “What’s the point of all of these small sats, all of this information, if we don’t actually get it to the people who need it?”

Parikh compared the advances in small sat-derived data to the ever-growing variety, velocity, and volume of television programming. Television has evolved from traditional providers (the networks), to focused content providers (specialized cable channels), to providers who bundle programming and even create their own (Netflix, Hulu, etc.). Similarly, geospatial intelligence has evolved from traditional government providers, to commercial providers and small sats, to the current epoch of analytics-as-a-service providers, Parikh said.

He added the focus needs to be not “Can you get this data off of this satellite in space?” but “Can you get the data to this particular person?” To do so, he said, will require the agency to focus on more flexible policy, better standards, and content ingestion and discovery.

Image Credit: Planet/Orbital Insight

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