The Next Big Thing in Space Commerce? Small Satellites

The market for small satellites has been growing thanks to increased access to communication technology.

New Delhi: With global access to information and communication technology increasing at exponential levels, the last few years have experienced a growing need for a network of small satellites.

Small satellites, colloquially called smallsats, are structures that may not necessarily be small in size or mass but have a reasonably shorter development time and by smaller teams. This reduces the cost of production, enabling greater access to satellite technology.

While developing countries are also fuelling the rising demand for applications of smallsats, they are typically used for non-governmental purposes: broadband communication, Earth observation and data collection.

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For the next decade, market researchers predict a remarkable growth in the number of smallsats launched. Over the last five years, an average of 190 smallsats were launched annually. This is expected to rise to 700 during the next five. In all, about 7,000 smallsats are expected to be launched between 2018 and 2027, with a total value of $38 billion (Rs 2.7 lakh crore).

US-based commercial smallsat launch companies like Rocket Lab are ahead of the game. On November 11, Rocket Lab launched its first commercial payload – seven smallsats of various data analytics and Internet of Things (IoT) companies – from the coast of New Zealand. Interestingly, one of the satellites was built by high school students in America for the purpose of capturing photos of Venus.

After the launch, Rocket Lab founder a CEO Peter Beck said the “world is waking up to the new normal”. In a press statement, he said, “With the Electron launch vehicle, rapid and reliable access to space is now a reality for small satellites.” Popular Mechanics reported that it would cost $80,000 (Rs 57.2 lakh) to book a single CubeSat seat on an Electron rocket. While the rocket is not reusable, the faster production time means that Rocket Lab is licensed to carry out 120 launches a year.

The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has, over the last few years, become a major destination for commercial spaceflight. Since 2015, it has earned Rs 5,600 crore through such launches.

Sensing the importance of making its presence felt in the smallsat sector as well, ISRO’s commercial wing Antrix has said that its Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) will be cleared for launch next year. It will be used exclusively to launch small and nano-satellites.

Antrix chief S. Rakesh said in an interview last month that ISRO was developing the vehicle and would transfer the technology to Antrix once testing was completed next year. SSLV would help reduce cost of launches relative to the trusted but heavier Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV), therefore driving up revenue, Rakesh said.

With a payload capacity of 500-700 kg to the low-Earth orbit, the SSLV will only be able to carry one-third the mass PLSV can.

European and North American dominance

While small satellites have significantly reduced manufacturing costs, the market is still dominated by players from North American and European markets. The US was responsible for 32% of attempts to launch smallsats in 2017, followed by Russia with 23%. China (20%) and Europe (10%) follow, with India taking 6% of the share.

Developing countries are yet to make their presence felt, largely because the technology to manufacture small satellites is still unavailable to most countries.

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In this context, ISRO’s intention to equip students from developing countries to build small satellites is a crucial initiative. The eight-week training programme, which was announced in June this year, would train one batch of students. Each batch is expected to have participants from 15 countries and each team will have two members. ISRO, with support from Ministry of External Affairs and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), would pay for all expenses of the participants.

A PSLV rocket at the first launchpad at SHAR, ahead of its C35 mission in September 2016. Credit: ISRO

ISRO’s trusted PSLV rocket wil lsoon have a smallsat equivalent, the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) Credit: ISRO

The first batch would begin training in January 2019. India has said that the programme would continue at least until 2021.

Of the eight weeks, the first four weeks would involve theoretical lessons on satellite technology and applications and nano satellite design and realisation. Over the next four weeks, the students would have hands-on experience with assembly, integration, and testing. The programme will also provide the teams with hardware and material to build a nano satellite and teams are expected to produce a functioning prototype by the time it ends.

Any nanosats that are functional will be launched by ISRO, with payloads developed independently by the organisation. According to The Print, the nanosats would weigh 10 kg and run on 12 watts of power with a lifespan of six months.

Next February, an international conference on small satellites is scheduled in Hyderabad. According to its website, the conference aims to combine “a robust and comprehensive exhibits program, lectures on the latest satellite and satellite technology, sessions that allow the interaction with leaders in this field, and a social program that will allow for maximum engagement and networking opportunities”.