With Smallsats, Can 1+1 = 3?
Attendance at last week’s SATELLITE 2018 in Washington, D.C. demonstrated the expansion of the traditionally GEO communications focused satellite industry to a more diverse collection of players and applications. Discussions of broadband connectivity, the potential of Big Data, and cost reduction involved established and emerging players alike, with smallsats entering the dialogue more than ever before. Given the challenges and opportunities facing the satellite industry today, can more capable smallsats enhance architectures and add value?
Multiple commercial projects point to a resounding ‘Yes’. Last month start-up Astranis announced a $13.5M Series A to fund development of ~300 kg GEO satellites, targeted for operations in partnership with a GEO telecommunications operator. Eutelsat publicized the new ELO program, starting with technology development cubesats from Tyvak to build out capabilities in the IoT marketplace to complement existing video and data business. The ELO announcement continues the series of established GEO and LEO satcom operators looking to diversify their fleets with non-traditional assets: Intelsat + OneWeb, Telesat’s LEO, JSAT + LeoSat, Thuraya + Astrocast, and Iridium + Hiber (ex-Magnitude Space), etc.
On the military side, U.S. DoD news in recent months highlighted the rising importance placed on resiliency and the risks of relying on few, high value assets in a more contentious world. Projects such as DARPA’s Blackjack, SMC’s ongoing Space Enterprise Vision, evolved SBIRS, etc. support an overall aim of more diverse architectures that can better address a range of requirements and operational contingencies.
NSR’s Small Satellite Markets, 4th Edition forecasts $25B in manufacturing and launch revenue over the next decade – a significant figure, but one dwarfed by the impact of services that is truly driving this market. Some of this will come from unique services offered by smallsats alone, but NSR finds growing potential for smallsats to create value when operating alongside larger birds in integrated systems.
NSR sees potential for an outsized impact on both the communications and the remote sensing sides of the market, as well as in growing demand for situational awareness. Commercial developments incorporating smallsats are not simply bids to expand revenue streams via adding new services, nor can their value be reduced to only lower cost or often-cited rapid technology refresh possibilities. There is no one solution, no killer app, no single benefit to come from smallsats. The advantage is that smallsats expand the scope of capabilities and flexibility available to operators, providing new tools to improve overall system efficiency and value proposition that can be leveraged as needed.
Smallsats are thus simply another piece to the value creation puzzle: from facilitating rehabilitation of damaged satellites via inspection to enabling incremental build-out of services to providing multiple additional data layers for decision makers, smallsats open the door to new CONOPS and more optimized systems. This can help operators balance CAPEX, timing of asset deployment and expansion, service capabilities, and addressable market.
Ultimately, smallsats help to foster a creative approach to delivering space products and services, a mindset towards innovation that might pull the industry out of the traditional paradigm that constrains both cost cutting and market growth.
The Bottom Line
As many attendees realized last week in D.C., for the satellite industry to move forward and be competitive in the global marketplace, it needs innovative solutions and a more open approach to addressing demand. Acting in tandem with larger satellites and diverse assets, smallsats open the door to enhanced operational potential. A balanced use of nimbler LEO and GEO smallsats alongside highly capable, larger satellites provides a flexible way to address the evolving consumer, enterprise, and government requirements of a more interconnected world. In some cases, 1+1 really can = 3.