Think about many of the technological advancements that have happened in your lifetime. Maybe that includes the introduction of the desktop computer, or the introduction of mobile devices, or the advent of wearables. When you consider those different advancements, one thing that really stands out is the physical size of the devices – they’re seemingly shrinking.
As devices have gotten more powerful, they’ve also gotten smaller. Today, the processing power of the IBM computer from the movie, “Hidden Figures,” is dwarfed by devices that fit into our pockets. In the movie, that IBM computer hilariously required the installation of a larger door to be moved into its dedicated room. Now, we accidentally put computers that are unfathomably more powerful in our washing machines because we forget they were in our favorite jeans.
But is this movement towards smaller, more powerful devices limited to computers and the IT industry? Or is it bleeding into other industries? What about the space and satellite industry? News coming out of the satellite industry seems to indicate that smaller could be the future.
There is immense innovation happening in the satellite and space industries, and the traditional path into space and satellites are changing. The next generation of satellites may be smaller. They may orbit closer to the Earth, be capable of being repaired in space and may host payloads from multiple different organizations.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the news from the industry that lays out some of these fascinating trends:
Big Aerospace Goes Big on Smallsats
If the future of satellites and space is to get bigger, then some of the industry’s heavyweights may have just made some terrible strategic decisions. That’s because – in light of flat or declining orders for large GEO satellites – practically every large satellite manufacturer is making investments into the production of smaller satellites and satellites for MEO and LEO orbits.
According to this article from Via Satellite, some of the largest satellite manufacturers – including SSL and Boeing – have recently made acquisitions or strategic partnerships to position themselves to better complete in the smallsat marketplace. These decisions weren’t made arbitrarily, they’re the result of ordering and industry trends. Many of the commercial satellite companies are seeing significant potential for smaller satellites in LEO and MEO, and are scaling back their large GEO satellite investments.
So, will the next generation of satellites fit in your pocket and risk taking a bath in your spin cycle? Probably not, they’ll still be pretty large and heavy. But they’re trending smaller, and that’s probably a step in the right direction. But that’s not the only change for satellite manufacturing on the horizon…
NASA Hires SSL to Research Satellite Manufacturing in Space
Launching satellites can cause some problems. It restricts how large some of the components can be, since they need to fit in a rocket. It also increases the risk to getting a satellite on orbit, creates wear and tear on the satellite, costs a ton of money and creates other restrictions.
So…what if we just stopped launching our satellites into space already built, and – instead – built them right up there in space?
Stop laughing. It’s (potentially) a perfectly reasonable idea. At least, that’s what NASA thinks. It’s also what our good friend Gordon Roesler thought when we spoke to him about the future of on-orbit servicing.
According to recent news articles, NASA has hired SSL to explore the concept, which would ultimately eliminate the restrictions of launching satellites by building them in habitats in space. The concept would enable “more simple and capable” satellites that don’t need to built to survive launch, which can be pretty tough on a satellite. This main sound like science fiction…but it’s real. We promise.
So, the satellites of the future may be smaller and be built in space. But what about the satellites being built now? How have those changed and evolved? Well…they may contain payloads from multiple, disparate organizations.
Air Force wants new GPS in orbit before year’s end
One of the largest and most impactful challenges facing the DoD is the threat to our satellite infrastructure. Our adversaries are more advanced than ever, and are capable of denying our satellite capabilities. Unfortunately, we rely on those a lot. Especially in the areas of position, navigation and timing (PNT), for which the military relies on GPS.
To help combat the susceptibility of our GPS satellite network, the Air Force and the rest of the DoD is scrambling to get a PNT alternative in place. This need and requirement to get a PNT alternative in place quickly makes it a perfect example of a capability or technology that could be a candidate to be launched as a hosted payload.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report on hosted payloads. That report encourages the DoD to more aggressively incorporate hosted payloads into their future satellite programs for a few reasons:
- They’re less expensive
- They provide a much faster and efficient path to space
- They deliver benefits in the area of resiliency
Those are all things that the military’s PNT satellite network could potentially benefit from.