Small satellites, particularly nanosatellites, are a relatively new and low-cost design in the satellite market, which for the past two decades has shown increasing government and commercial applications. With lower launch costs creating new commercial opportunities in the space economy, tiny satellites may become the entry-level design used by individuals, businesses, and NGOs to launch their interests into space.
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Small Satellites Rising Integration
Nanosatellites (Nanosats) are a classification of miniaturized satellites, ranging from one kg to ten kg, that are typically assembled from commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) electronics and used for a variety of applications from Earth Observation (EO) to telecommunications. Cube satellites (CubeSats), while frequently used interchangeably with Nanosats, are a class of Nanosats intended for low earth orbit (LEO) and deployed following the openly available CubeSat Design Specification (CDS) by California Polytechnic State University San Louis Obispo, making these designs rather popular in the satellite miniaturization space. Due to these satellites being smaller and lower in cost to produce, sending them into orbit is inherently cheaper and carries a lower risk than their larger counterparts. These benefits have attracted commercial and government customers into the nanosat space who are interested in expanding their applications and deployments. With more than 1,800 Nanosats and 1,600 CubeSats launched to date, and a higher volume of launches expected in the coming years, these tiny satellites are riding the wave of space commercialization while paving the way for opening up space for a wider set of use cases for smaller businesses and enterprise customers in what the National Aeronautics and Space Association (NASA) and ISS National Laboratory have claimed is the “CubeSat Revolution”.
Satellite Mass Classification:
- Large satellites: >1,000 kg
- Medium satellites: 500 to 1,000 kg
- Small satellites: < 500 kg
- Minisatellites: 100 to 500 kg
- Microsatellites: 10 to 100 kg
- Nanosatellites: 1 to 10 kg
- Picosatellites: 100 g – 1 kg
- Femtosatellites: 10 g – 100 g
- Attosatellites: 1 g – 10 g
- Zeptosatellites: 0.1 g – 1 g
- Cube satellites
- From 0.25U - 27U (“U” or Units is 10 cm x 10 cm x 10cm per Unit)
- From ~0.2 kg to ~40 kg (typically 1.33 kg)
Big Things Have Small Beginnings
With a trend of decreasing costs for launch and space hardware in general, CubeSats and Nanosats may be the go-to entry-level spacecraft for private individuals and entities looking to be early participants in the “New Space Economy”—a global entrepreneurial and accessible space economy ignited from the emergence of activities from private players and governments with higher risk-tolerances.
A Brief History
CubeSats started out as an academic endeavour in 1999 between university professors Bob Twiggs and Jordi Puig-Suari to enable graduate students to design, build, and operate real crafts in space. While initially dismissed by government space operators to not have any real applications, by 2014, the CubeSat design had become a recognized standard. Over 1600 CubeSats are currently in orbit providing space research and imagining data for EO missions. This data has proved useful for commercial tech giants in utilizing satellite imagery to support earth rendering programs, for example, Google’s program Google Earth. The applications of these tiny satellites have continued to expand in areas such as telecommunications and exploration at a more accessible cost than ever before.
CubeSats and Nanosats are relatively affordable when compared to their larger counterparts. In fact, there are a plethora of online videos and forums with detailed instructions on how to construct one for under US$1,000 using COTS electronics. Once the CubeSat or Nanosat is constructed, however, the bigger issue arises with getting them into space. The answer to this problem, as of late, lies in “Smallsat Rideshare” programs which allows smaller satellites to hitch a ride on rockets that are already set on a mission to deploy larger satellites in space. In February 2021, the average market price to launch a CubeSat (typically 1-20 kg in mass) into Low Earth Orbit (LEO) is around US$30,000 per kilogram on a dedicated launcher, but with a ride-share launch from Nanoracks or Space X, for example, 175-200 kilograms can be launched for around US$1.1 million, or US$5,500 to $6,300 per kilogram. Despite this assistance, ridesharing may stop short of inserting the satellite into its final orbital slot, and onboard propulsion or a transfer vehicle will be required to take the satellite further, adding on additional costs.
A Gateway for Technology Pioneers, NGOs, and Crowd-Sourced Initiatives
The “New Space Economy” is moving more towards a market that is lowering barriers in doing business, improving product transparency, and bringing in new buyers and sellers, and consolidation in the infrastructure segment of the value chain. The Space Foundation, a nonprofit Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), estimated the global space economy stood at US$447 billion in 2020, and roughly 80% of that comes from the commercial sector. The market is increasingly being driven by ease of access and lowering barriers to entry for commercial participants. While CubeSats and Nanosats may indeed offer lower construction costs for private individuals wanting to enter the market, miniaturization for the sake of saving launch costs may lose significance as launch costs continue to decline. Coupled with the fact that satellite operators are increasingly wanting more communications capability, bandwidth, agility, and service life from technology, the real value proposition and gateway for “New Space” market entrants may be in larger Microsatellites (10 to 100 kg) and Minisatellites (100 to 500 kg), like Starlink satellites (260kg) or OneWeb satellites (150kg). While CubeSats and Nanosats may eventually fade out in favor of more efficient designs with longer-term utility, better economies of scale, and that fully benefit from rideshare programs, commercial solutions that help close the distance for delivering these tiny satellites to their destinations are already in use. Solutions like Nanorack’s Bishop Airlock, a commercial airlock attached to the International Space Station (ISS) that can launch satellites into their final orbit, are enabling more commercial space launches from the ISS and provide the much needed “taxi service” that CubeSats and Nanosats need. This represents another area of expanding space commercialization that may help the satellite miniaturization model, with companies that focus on applications in space for space.
Design and Commercial Applications
Miniaturized satellites may not address all the satellite use case scenarios, such as high-capacity broadband applications or broadcasting, their novel EO, experimental applications, and benefits remain promising. In 2021, the United Nations highlighted some of the benefits of affordable spacecraft applications by enabling greater evidence-based climate action and real-time information for decision making and forecasting. In this respect, their applications in boosting economic growth for resiliency and recovery from COVID-19, including oil and gas, mining, fishing, and other industries, and for atmospheric science and humanitarian applications such as disaster response, maritime traffic, crop monitoring, educational applications, and more. As more Nanosat and CubeSat crowdfunding projects start to pop up, they are providing even non-technically inclined individuals and small businesses, the opportunity to develop and launch their own satellite into space and participate in the satellite enterprise sector.