Low earth Orbit Tech Features

Small satellites move into spotlight

Increasing demand for cheaper connectivity and imaging requirements have put small-satellite players and related businesses on the map with an estimated 11,631 launch demands predicted by 2030, according to Frost & Sullivan.
Vivek Suresh Prasad, Space Industry Principal, Aerospace & Defense, Frost & Sullivan.

By 2030, there will be an estimated 11,631 launch demands for new constellation installations and replacement missions, which could take the market past the $62 billion mark, according to a report by Frost & Sullivan titled Small-satellite Launch Services Market, Quarterly Update Q1 2018, Forecast to 2030. This surge in launch demand has been attributed to the evolution of small satellites from being mere technology demonstrators to providers of low-cost operational services across distributed industry segments. As the lifespan of these satellites is between two and five years, there will be constant launch demand and participants will look to enhance their systems and infrastructure.

“While North American and European companies will be the leading developers of flexible, dedicated launch vehicles, players in Asia-Pacific are looking to follow suit,” says Vivek Suresh Prasad, Space Industry Principal, Aerospace & Defense, speaking about the report, which is part of Frost & Sullivan’s global space Growth Partnership Service programme.

“Many players are also analysing the feasibility of the small satellite spaceport business model to provide dedicated launch services to small satellite operators.”

The analyst points out that at present, more than 30 commercial operators are already building their own constellations.

“Most of the commercial players including SpaceX, planning to launch their small satellites constellation, are in the development phase. Currently, these companies are launching their experimental missions in small batches. These companies will generate the demand for small satellite launch services for their constellation installation and replacement missions. At present, only Planet and Spire Global have advanced in installing their low earth orbit small satellites, with Planet realising 100% of their in-orbit planned constellation and Spire Global realising 60%. Launch services demand will primarily be generated from the US and European region, as most of the commercial operators are from these regions,” says Prasad.

One of the main reasons why small satellites have become especially attractive is because they are cheaper to deploy, cost significantly less than their high-end predecessors and are able to provide cheaper services and solutions to the market.

Arun Kumar Sampathkumar, Team Leader, Aerospace & Defense at Frost & Sullivan.

“You may find, for instance, that small satellites are not able to provide very high-resolution imagery but the end user does not require such high-quality images for urban planning and town infrastructure or forestry. So, while the images from small satellites may not exactly match the capabilities of bigger satellites, some applications do not require images in high resolution,” explains Arun Kumar Sampathkumar, Team Leader, Aerospace & Defense at Frost & Sullivan.

Kumar explains that the story of small satellites began around eight years ago, when everyone was thinking of how they could gather much more data in a Sensor-agnostic mode. He points out that imagery-based intelligence has given this industry a huge boost.

“The small satellite players plan to provide end-to-end solutions to the customers and hence, are calling themselves intelligence providers. Historically, big-satellite operators held the unique position of running the upstream side of the business. Small satellites are now enabling the value chain expansion from both ends. Small satellite manufacturers are planning to launch their own satellites and offer satellite as a service. Also, satellite operators are building their own satellites inorder to offer low-cost downstream services.”

The analyst’s report studies the demand for small satellite launch based on operators’ maturity, mass classes, and user segments. It forecasts the number of small satellites, payload mass, and launch revenue based on defined scenarios.

The high volume of launch demand for small satellites is driving launch service providers to increase their launch capacity. The current rideshare capacity is insufficient to meet the upcoming launch demand. Most small satellites use the rideshare capacity as a secondary payload on existing launches. This makes their project schedule and mission requirements dependent on the primary payload. Many incumbent and emerging commercial operators are preparing for the impending capacity expansion by providing dedicated services and launch flexibility to small satellite operators. Once these unit shipment needs are met, the market could grow impressively.

The report outlines a number of significant numbers. For instance, the total projected launch capacity supply, including the success of multiple dedicated planned launch services, is 11,631 small satellites. In this case, a total payload mass of 2,473 tonnes can be potentially launched. Small satellites in the mass segments of 0 to 15 Kg and 150 to 500 Kg could account for as much as 65% of the small satellite launch demand. 32 small satellite commercial operators will generate more than 90% of the launch demand.

Overall, significant market opportunities will be created by high-volume subsystem demand, dedicated launch services for small satellites, capacity expansion of ground station services, and standard platforms for downstream services.

“The key to resolving production challenges is to standardise, optimise and deploy low-rate serial production lines for small satellites and the launch hardware for the relevant launch vehicles,” notes Prasad, adding that the small satellite market is not without its challenges but they also serve as huge commercial opportunities to the market.

He points out, for instance, that the short life span of two to five years for a small satellite means it needs to be continuously replaced.

“Planet, for instance, has 150 satellites which means to keep the whole constellation live continuously, they have to launch 60 to 70 satellites every year. You then need a manufacturing setup that provides satellites with lower lead times. At present, the waiting period for any launch service is between six months and two years and to maintain a whole constellation, you need faster on-demand launch services. Several dedicated small satellite rockets will have to come into the picture to cater to this demand.”

He adds that ground station infrastructure needs to simultaneously evolve to meet the increasing demand for small satellite launches. “With real time imagery and seamless global connectivity, you are talking about satellites being connected to the ground station all the time. The present ground station infrastructure is not enough to cater to this demand. Incumbent ground station operators and small satellite players are all expanding their ground station infrastructure, on the one hand. On the other hand, we see an evolving service that we have called the uberisation of ground stations.

“RBC Signals and Infostellar have launched a web platform, where ground station operators can post their idle time so that those who need it can access it for a fee.”

Kumar explains further that being in touch with ground stations globally ensures a steady stream of satellite imagery even when one’s satellite goes beyond one’s own point of view, because another satellite picks up the image and shares it.

“This way, we ensure a steady stream of real time imagery.”

Added to this, spectrum and interference issues have cropped up with small satellites, he points out.

“Small satellite operators are operating from low-earth orbit so they will not be operating at the same power. But it is to be confirmed whether there will be interference. The regulatory framework for this is still evolving as they need to include new players along with the existing ones.”

While some would think that the small satellite players have brought in competition for the geostationary players, the latter have quickly realised that the former offers complementary rather than competitive services.

“There is some overlap but when you go to the low-res imagery segment, the overlap is very small.

“Small satellite players operate in lower earth orbit, which the big boys don’t cover. This means the small satellites are able to go around multiple times, making the frequency of global data updates significantly higher and creating greater opportunity for real time imagery intelligence. Realising their potential, a number of big players have invested in small satellite companies,” explains Kumar, who cites DigitalGlobe as working with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology since 2016 to build, integrate and launch six or more small satellites to collect imagery with a resolution of 80 cm. Similarly, he cites Intelsat as having a 20% stake in Oneweb, a small satellite operator planning to launch 720 satellites for affordable global connectivity.

“Big satellite players are consciously investing in small satellite businesses to ensure that they can offer a mix of big and small price services especially in terms of imaging and communication services.”

Prasad adds that big satellites tend to have a lifespan of 10 to 15 years, while a lot of the downstream technology is evolving rapidly and as small satellites have a smaller mission life, there is greater flexibility to update them more frequently.





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