When Flexibility is Key: Working Towards a Sustainable On-Demand Smallsat Market


As technology miniaturisation matures, there are new hurdles and barricades to overcome in the smallsat industry. In order for this industry to achieve the growth that has been predicted, various issues including smallsat launch, technologies and regulations need to be worked out or defined. However, one thing is clear: the ability of organisations to become and remain flexible is key to creating a sustainable industry that is able to respond quickly to ever-changing customer demands.

Launch cheaply, quickly and reliably

One of the talking points remains access to space. A major shake-up of launch services has been impending for the last couple of years, as relatively low-cost launch vehicle developers have been working on prototypes, test vehicles and (soon to be) operational launchers. Prime examples include ArianeGroup’s Vega, Rocket Lab’s Electron and Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne. Simultaneously, the large launch vehicle manufacturers have taken the opportunity to offer rideshares. Customers require increased flexibility, as they want to launch cheaply and quickly to keep costs down for their downstream customers. At this stage, customers are keen to see which small launch services will be available soon enough for use.

Chris DeMay, CTO at HawkEye 360, highlights this flexibility requirement: “We're currently developing our next generation satellites and we’ll want the flexibility to launch multiple satellites at the same time, as much as a couple hundred kilos on a single rocket. Our launch vendor will need to be technically reliable, with a dependable schedule, and would ideally give us control of the schedule and LTAN, and, of course, be reasonably priced. Some of that is coming to fruition right now; I'm encouraged by the progress launch vendors have made, but we are still awaiting broad, demonstrated small launch options – we probably need another year before we have a steady-state of launch diversity.”

Germany-based Exolaunch, a launch service broker, operates as a middleman – it takes ownership of the conversation between the satellite company and the launch service provider. The organisation buys up space on launch services and offers slots on these vehicles through their satellite separation systems. Currently, the company mainly books services with large launch vehicles, including Soyuz. Jeanne Medvedeva, Commercial Director of Exolaunch, says, “Of the [new] small launchers in development, only Electron has entered the market.” Knowing which launch services will become available soon will add to the flexibility the industry so desperately needs. “As a commercial company, we are practical. We look at options available on the market right now, but we need to have some launch plan in the next five years,” says Medvedeva. 

Optimising communication systems for diversified demands

Launch and access to space aren’t the only areas that require greater flexibility. Giovanni Pandolfi, CTO of ground-system developer Leaf Space, says, “Our aim is to offer a multi-mission ground stations network service, as we want to serve different satellite missions. This reduces the service price and increases the capability and flexibility for what the customers need from space.” When Leaf Space was established in 2014, it noticed a gap in the market when it came to ground segments for small satellites. “One of the main challenges was to have a system that was somewhat flexible. There were no standards; everyone can do what they want. On the technical side there was no standard protocol at all. The only way to be compliant with standards is to be flexible. Be as flexible as possible,” says Pandolfi. “Another thing is to provide a reliable service to the customer. You need more than one ground station. [A] material solution to that was to develop a ground station founded and operated by us but used by different end users. We operate our own network. We can override things for our customers.”

Being able to provide updates to customers is one of the key points for Leaf Space. “We can upgrade our hardware to be compliant with new customer requirements. We always search for updates or improvements in performance. We can deploy these changes quite fast. If there is an issue with one ground station, we can easily accommodate this. We don’t have to rely on third parties,” explains Pandolfi.

Introducing intelligent propulsion systems

Many customers will have varied requirements. To answer these demands, having the correct propulsion system may make all the difference. Ane Aanesland, CEO of electric propulsion (EP) system developer ThrustMe, outlines why propulsion is so important for this market: “Firstly, because propulsion will allow the industry to remain environmentally sustainable with de-orbiting and collision avoidance manoeuvres for smallsats. Secondly, propulsion is essential for the many constellation projects that require large orbital manoeuvrability, such as significant orbital changes, phasing, drag compensation, and so on.”

Although there are various challenges regarding the development of these systems, such as thermal and operational management due to the small size of the satellite and its subsystems, there has been an increase in research into and development of so-called intelligent propulsion systems.

Morpheus Space, a Germany-based startup developing EP systems for smallsats, is introducing smart features for their space qualified propulsion systems and a constellation management service. Co-founder István Lõrincz says, “What we came to develop because of our revolutionary electric propulsion technology is a new angle that we’ll want to address. We want to be able to rearrange entire constellations. Nowadays you design a satellite network for a pre-defined set of mission objectives, but what happens if my clients change and the objectives change? It means I must change the satellite network. For the first time we can do that through electric propulsion and smart software – we can rearrange entire networks. Markets can change very quickly, and satellite operators need to be agile enough to adapt just as fast. It is our responsibility to ensure that satellite operators have the necessary flexibility to secure the growth of the NewSpace industry”.

For Aanesland, intelligent propulsion systems are on the radar: “We are used to hearing about autonomous/self-driven cars, but maybe it is the satellite constellations that will adopt this technology first. The huge complexity of operating a constellation will require some sort of autonomy on the individual satellite level. For us, the first step is to deliver intelligent propulsion systems; the next one will be to support in the optimisation and automation of the propulsive operations.”

The harmony between data analytics and end-user needs

At the core of the smallsat industry are the analytics tools, often supported by machine learning and data scientists to make sense of all the collected data. According to various sources, the analytics products market is most likely to grow considerably in the coming years.

Pandolfi: “Right now, we [Leaf Space] are just on the communications part, but analytics is something for the future. Depending on the service we can provide to the customer, we can make a new application to the same satellite, download more data faster or use the communications satellite in a different way (latency).”

All this data can provide access to space for existing market players, but also for downstream segments that perhaps don’t realise they need space just yet: “It’s important for the market to see new applications and where this data can be available,” says Pandolfi. The growth of data use and analytics raises various question in terms of data distribution, encryption and ethicalities.

Want to learn more about the importance of flexibility in all aspects of the smallsat industry, including launch, technology development, constellation management, downstream requirements and regulations? Join us at the Smallsats Conference at Space Tech Expo Europe 2019 on 19-21 November in Bremen, Germany. This is your chance to hear HawkEye 360, Exolaunch, ThrustMe, Morpheus Space and Leaf Space – plus many other leading organisations – discuss the latest smallsat industry developments.

Space Tech Expo Europe brings together the entire European space supply chain and is an unparalleled opportunity to meet your future partners and suppliers from across the continent under one roof!