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Think small, aim low: a new direction for satellite communications

14/08/2020

“Through the marvels of scientific advance, my voice is coming to you from a satellite circling in outer space.” - President Eisenhower, 1958.

Think small, aim low: a new direction for satellite communications

It’s been more than six decades since the first voice was beamed through space. Eisenhower’s Christmas message heralded the dawn of a new age of communication, but today we largely take global satellite communication for granted. When we look back at the beginning of the ‘space age’, many think of the 1969 Apollo landing. Few consider that, of all the space age’s repercussions, satellite communications has probably had the most effect on the average person. After all, it is the only truly commercial space technology, facilitating billions of dollars’ worth of products and services.

Small, numerous, mighty

Since the beginning of the ‘space race’, there has been a growing market for satellites. But it’s the small satellite industry that has truly ‘taken off’ over the last few years. Small satellites are generally classified by a mass of under 1000kg.

Today, new constellations of over a thousand such satellites have been proposed, and over the next decade, the number of satellites in orbit could increase ten-fold - from about 2,000 to 20,000, according to the World Economic Forum. But why?

Cost is a factor. Advances in miniaturisation, combined with commercial off the shelf (COTS) technology, allow small satellites to punch well above their weight. You can also pack more of these satellites into a launch vehicle, bringing launch costs right down. This has ushered in a new era of diminutive, low-cost satellites, which can augment or replace larger existing systems.

This has driven the production of large satellite constellations, which see use today across fields as diverse as defence, agriculture, business intelligence and disaster management.

Typically operating in low Earth orbit (LEO) of 1100-1300km above the surface, these small satellites can be built for a tiny fraction of the price of a traditional spacecraft. And their proximity to the surface means that LEO-to-Earth communication can be achieved in 20% of the time (latency) of what is achieved via geostationary satellites. A constellation of satellites at this altitude offers shorter revisit times and greater coverage for the same mission costs.

But the operational lifetimes of these small satellites is short. They’re designed to last around five to eight years, compared to 15 to 20 for a traditional platform.

High risk, high return?

LEO satellites aren’t new. They’ve been used for communications since the launch of the Iridium constellation in 1998. What is new is the accessibility and subsequent demand; technology breakthroughs have driven costs down, opening the market to new commercial players, such as SpaceX, who haven’t traditionally had a presence in space.

Whether that be building a space-enabled Internet of Things (IoT) network, global broadband access, or your own Earth observation system – the opportunities this affords allows companies to tap into the ‘NewSpace’ phenomenon. Never before have organisations had so much control of the process, from the design of a system all the way through to its orbital operations.