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The space sector is undergoing transformational changes as it expands beyond its historical mission. The ability to launch objects into space — whether that means people, probes, satellites, or the modules of the International Space Station — has been so costly and technologically challenging that only a few governments have been involved. However, over the past 15 years launch costs have dropped by orders of magnitude, which has led to a sharp increase in the civil and commercial use of space. This sudden increase in accessibility is enabling new uses of space.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with the increased use of small satellites (smallsats), which are a new class of satellites that incorporate recent improvements from the computer and electronics industries. Satellites are traditionally classified based on their size, cost, and capabilities; smallsats are those with mass less than 600 kg. Compared with traditional satellite systems, smallsats are developed faster, with smaller teams, and are less costly.
Why does it matter?
The rapid increase in technological capability and declining cost, through standardized parts and production processes, have made smallsats increasingly useful. More satellites can be deployed in low earth orbit allowing for greater coverage. For example, if a port operator wanted to continuously monitor the number of containers entering and exiting its facility, it could track that information with a network of small satellites, an ability that would have been prohibitively expensive 20 years ago. Smallsats are addressing a range of remote sensing problems, from tracking aircrafts to providing low-latency communications. Smallsats have already restructured how most Earth science disciplines (i.e., hydrology, meteorology and oceanography) operate.
Whether they realize it or not, every U.S. business is already deeply reliant on space systems today. Smallsats have already become indispensable to American firms, but the nascent smallsat industry is also a growth engine for the U.S. Like other disruptive technologies such as the smartphone or personal computer, the development of smallsats was pioneered in the U.S. Remarkably, over 80% of smallsats were manufactured by U.S. companies, according to Bryce Space and Technology.
However, global production of smallsats is increasing quickly, and the U.S. advantage in this field should not be presumed. American intellectual property must be guarded carefully or smallsat production will shift overseas and our advantages will wane.
Numbers to know:
Between 2012 and 2018 more than 1,300 smallsats were launched globally. Euroconsult, a global consultancy, predicts that more than 3,600 will be launched in the next decade, although this could surpass 10,000 if even some of the planned broadband constellations are deployed, according to the Institute for Defense Analysis.
The next few years will see the development and deployment of several competing smallsat constellations. These distributed networks may refashion how we receive internet service and could alleviate the global disparity in internet access — the global digital divide.
The recent growth in smallsat deployment brings great potential but also raises many questions. For example, how will we balance the commercial incentives for rapid deployment with the need to carefully track and catalog space assets; limit conjunction risks; mitigate against cybersecurity threats; create sensible and enforceable deorbit plans; and ensure the sustainable use of low earth orbit? A mature regulatory regime will ensure the safe presence for human activity in space.