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Small satellites promise to change the game (Studio)

1st June 2021 - 15:00 GMT | by Studio

The evolution of small satellites is opening the door to a growing number of military and commercial organisations.

Brought to you in partnership with Raytheon Intelligence & Space

Small satellites are revolutionising space, opening the domain to a growing number of military and commercial organisations.

For Raytheon Intelligence & Space (RIS), the true potential lies in a layered approach, with the smaller platforms complementing and enhancing the capabilities provided by larger, highly sophisticated systems.

There are a range of different types of small satellites with varying payload capacities, including cube satellites, nanosatellites and microsatellites. They are far cheaper to build and launch than more traditional satellites, and particularly expand the range of options in low-earth orbit (LEO) functions, such as imaging.

Raytheon Technologies took a major step forward in the small satellites business in late 2020, when it completed its acquisition of Blue Canyon Technologies, a specialist developer of small satellite systems and components.

The move significantly enhances RIS’s offerings in the space domain, both in the US and internationally, said Matt Magana, a Raytheon space executive who was recently appointed president of Blue Canyon Technologies, with 60 small satellite buses and more than 600 components in production as of May 2021.

The acquisition places Raytheon firmly at the centre of a rapidly growing business, Magana said, noting that around 240 tons of small satellites were launched in 2020, more than 500% above the previous year’s level. There are now around 2,000 small satellite missions in orbit, he said, supporting a wide range of applications, both military and civil. 

‘They’re all pulling information and data that we’d never see before, which is being funnelled into how we understand the world,’ Magana said. ‘It’s just really fun to watch.’

Small satellites are not a new invention, but the barriers to entry are quickly falling, said Ron Fehlen, executive director for the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and communication product line in the Space Systems arm of RIS. As with any business, the rapid expansion of the supply base is driving down the costs associated with manufacturing and launching the systems, he said. 

That’s not to say there’s no longer a place for the larger, more expensive and ‘very exquisite systems that protect our country’, said Fehlen. 

The real value for RIS is striking a balance between the company’s heritage in designing these exquisite sensors and the newer systems, finding a position in the middle that allows for trade-offs, even at a constellation level. 

This would allow designers to benefit from the experimentation advantages offered by small satellites – notably the ability to quickly deploy new sensors – while also maintaining the power of the more traditional, often geosynchronous (GEO) satellites. Such trades can often be made within the same constellations, he noted.

When new products enter a long-established market, it can too easily become a binary discussion, Fehlen said: in this case, choosing between larger numbers of smaller satellites, or a smaller number of large, sophisticated systems. 

This is something of a false choice, he believes; instead, many industry and government experts are looking to an “architectural” approach. 

This architectural concept would not negate the longer-term, expensive, highly capable systems, he said. Instead, it ‘asks how I solve [a challenge] with a multitude of potential solutions on orbit … and get the best out of both of them’. 

A GEO satellite could cover a particular part of the earth with extremely powerful sensors or other equipment (providing communications, for instance), while benefiting from the unique capabilities that smaller satellites provide in LEO. This can close any potential gaps, while also boosting resiliency.

For example, there is always the risk that a particular threat might change course while a GEO satellite is being developed; a smaller, LEO satellite could be deployed to accomplish at least part of the mission. 

‘I can blend … the different variables or the different constraints that I have, the speed of technology, the speed of our adversaries, the speed of our need,’ Fehlen added.  

As long as the various segments within the architectural approach remain affordable, ‘you can mix and match the capability based on different constraints, not just technical performance’. Similarly, many people today rely on a smartphone, a tablet and a computer on a daily basis, mixing these as needed.

‘We now have that same advantage that we have in our personal lives when it comes to computers and communications,’ said Fehlen.

The layered approach will evolve over time, said Magana. Even today, it is not simply a case of a powerful, expensive platform supported by inexpensive yet relatively unsophisticated smaller systems.

In fact, the small satellite layer has made significant advances of its own, with Blue Canyon Technologies focused on developing highly precise attitude control, building more advances into its buses, and much more.

‘We have the ability now to do a lot of these missions that had been slotted for big, exquisite systems,’ Magana said.

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