Jul 16, 2019 - 12:30pm

U.S. Pioneers Space Innovations with Small Satellites


Associate Manager, Digital and Editorial Content

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Steve Nixon, president of the Small Sat Alliance, speaks at a small satellite policy roundtable at the U.S. Chamber.
Steve Nixon, president of the Small Sat Alliance, speaks at a small satellite policy roundtable at the U.S. Chamber.

As the U.S. nears the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s historic small step on the moon, American space industry leaders are once again finding themselves ahead of the game when it comes to space innovation. 

Last week, space industry experts gathered at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to participate in a panel discussion on the growing need for small satellites (smallsats) in the space economy and the opportunities small satellites pose for American businesses. Discussion sessions with industry experts, including FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and SmallSat Alliance President Steve Nixon, revealed the significance of this expanding sector of space commerce, and what it will take to continue pushing U.S. businesses beyond terrestrial boundaries.

Here are the top three tips industry experts shared with the U.S. Chamber on how to promote small satellite integration among American businesses.

1. Better regulations

Regulatory challenges present threats and deterrents to U.S. businesses, small and large, especially when it comes to applying for, buying, and launching smallsats. According to Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart, it is critical that governments “pick up the pace” when it comes to air traffic regulations and monitoring. Closing down air space halts launches and diminishes the potential security and innovation that can result from increased U.S. smallsats in the space economy. 

2. New rules to lower costs

As one can imagine, manufacturing, launching, and operating smallsats isn’t cheap. However, the cost of the satellite itself isn’t the only component of space commerce that has U.S. business owners strapped for cash. Right now, an application alone to send a Geostationary Equatorial Orbit (GEO) satellite into space costs $130k. Compare that to the $450k application cost for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, the preferred satellites for mobile function, and small businesses in this country are left discouraged from participating in the modern day space race.

During the event, Chairman Pai announced that he had submitted draft regulations to establish a streamlined licensing system that would reduce the licensing burden for a subset of increasingly important smallsats to FCC Board before the roundtable. 

“To qualify for the streamlined process, these smallsats would have to be no more than 180 kg, or about 400 lbs. They would also have to quickly burn up in Earth’s atmosphere if something goes wrong and ground operators lose contact; their maximum lifespan would be six years,” Chairman Pai said.

3. Increase efficiency

The application time spectrum is one of the biggest concerns among U.S. businesses interested in launching smallsats, according to Nixon. Business owners are frustrated by extensive processing periods inhibiting them from launching competitively. This concern is further exacerbated when Chinese developments in the industry are taken into consideration. If the waiting periods for U.S. business applicants aren’t expedited, the pool of foreign satellites will continue to expand and potentially take over the market.

According to Politico, Chinese investments and expansion into small satellites creates a two-pronged issue. First, it puts the security of American assets already in orbit at risk. If American assets become compromised, it puts the security of businesses and the nation at risk. Second, it gives China an opportunity to enter the market with lower prices, putting U.S. businesses out of commission.

Many American companies have an interest in expanding into the space economy, bringing new ideas and innovation to the industry. This would increase competition, help secure space commerce assets, and maintain national security.

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About the Author

About the Author

Associate Manager, Digital and Editorial Content

Kelly Rosenblatt is an Associate Manager of Digital and Editorial Content at the U.S. Chamber.