Sanjay Kumar writes: The advancement in technology and development of mini/ nano components for high resolution imagery, has opened a new frontier in Space ; with smaller satellites able to serve the same purpose as larger satellite and given the redundancy factor clubbed with low cost, nano satellites are garnering greater support. The lower cost of smaller satellites is allowing new entities to build, launch, operate, and support satellites, especially in Low Earth orbit. The small satellites offer array of benefits – ease of replacement / technology upgradation, easy to enlarge coverage area or widen scope of the project. These can also be launched on demand, to cater for sudden spurt on requirement for communications/ observation etc. Courtesy burgeoning small/nano satellite market, space is now accessible to non-government organisations, educational institutes, commercial/ business houses, non-spacefaring states and even individuals at a low-cost. Even today, almost six decades after the first satellite was launched, only a handful of states are in a position to launch satellites on their own. All other states are depending upon established space players and limited private ventures to launch their satellites.
One rationale for miniaturizing satellites is to reduce the launch cost; smaller and lighter satellites require smaller and low-priced launch vehicle. These can also be launched ‘piggyback’, using excess capacity on larger launch vehicles.Today; many smaller states are keen to launch their own satellites (mostly small/ nano) and are collaborating with space-faring agencies for this purpose. Also, with increase in the capabilities of small satellites owing to various recent technological developments, space-faring states are found taking renewed interest towards expanding their small satellite development programmes. All this is pushing various commercial agencies into developing an exclusive new generation of small satellite launch vehicles including reusable launch vehicles to cut costs.
A revolution in cheap, lightweight, and efficient technology is rapidly bringing down the cost and increasing the capabilities of satellites. Microsatellites under 100 kg are becoming increasingly popular among start-up technology companies, especially the CubeSat standard (10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm units under 5 kg). The small satellite revolution is being driven by the private sector, not governments. Start-ups have found a niche with small satellites’ low cost and short timelines allowing cutting-edge technologies to be placed into space quicker.
Technological advancements have made micro satellites capable of performing complex scientific functions, communications, remote sensing and Earth observation missions. Besides contributing to the conventional roles, they have also spurred thinking on innovative applications that could exploit their size and capabilities. Smaller satellites have truly encouraged the concept of constellations replacing standalone systems. These are collective arrays of satellites that when functioning in a synchronized fashion exhibit collective behaviours and performances substantially greater than the sum of their individual abilities. Some constellations are already operational providing support to communication, remote sensing, global positioning and disaster management. Such constellations, displaced in orbits, are more responsive, provide wider coverage and shortened revisit times and improve redundancy. SpaceX and OneWeb have already announced creation of large communication microsatellite constellations, consisting of 4,025 and 648 satellites, respectively (SpaceWorks Enterprise, Inc. (SEI) 2015).
The biggest advantage of increasing small satellite market is that it has the potential to ‘Democratise Space’, by making more and more nations get access to space. While it is a challenge to advanced countries, to their security and supremacy in space, on the contrary it provides other nations to use space a “Global Common” for betterment of life of their citizens and governance.
Microsatellites have the potential to revolutionise the space arena in almost all aspects. Their development in recent years has forced a rethink on space based resources, their development, deployment and employability. This revolution has increased aspirations of many more nations to use space technology for better governance, up lift society, mitigate disasters, and even to enhance defence preparedness.
Challenges:- While small satellites afford a galaxy of opportunities, it has its own challenges. Increased number of satellites will add on to growing congestion in the space, which will increase chances of collisions and debris management. The limited spectrum is already adding on to the problem of interference and spectrum management. De-orbiting these large numbers of satellites itself will pose a bigger challenge.
Way Ahead:- The bigger players will have to make space to accommodate aspirations of naïve countries. To prevent use of space by only few space faring nations, world will have to come together to make treaty beneficial to all and which addresses concerns of smaller nations. The treaty to prevent weaponisation of space and propagate peaceful use of space is the need of the hour. In addition, the need to share space assets and their usage may have to be thought of, like GPS. Peaceful use of space assets beyond borders, shared services – may make space a “Global Common” in true sense.
- ‘Rocket Launchers for Small Satellites | Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses’, accessed 8 April 2016, http://www.idsa.in/issuebrief/rocket-launchers-for-small-satellites_alele.tshrivastav_040216.
- “Nano/Microsatellite Market Assessment 2014”, SpaceWorks Enterprises, Inc. (SEI), Atlanta, February 2014
- “Small Is Beautiful in Space,” accessed February 7, 2016, http://www.claws.in/978/small-is-beautiful-in-space-puneet-bhalla.html.