Small Satellites, also called Smallsats or Minisatellite, are artificial satellites with a wet mass ranging between 100 – 500 kgs (including fuel). As far as usage value is concerned, any satellite with a mass below 500 kg is considered as a small satellite. These are further classified into different categories basis their varying masses. Previously, small satellites were considered only as experimental toys, but today they find themselves entrenched in various space research applications. Small satellites were initially utilised for low-earth orbit (LEO) missions; however, today they find application in geostationary (GEO) as well as planetary mission applications. In 2004, questions were raised if small satellites were complementary or disruptive technology. The AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites has been working for the last two decades to resolve this debate. While small satellites offer multiple advantages, their launch rate has been stagnant for a while. According to the AIAA/USU, it is important to establish the value and efficacy of small satellites as a disruptive technology if the market has to witness a paradigm shift in the near future.
According to Space Works Forecast – which maintains an extensive database of existing and future satellites with masses ranging between 0 kg and 10,000+ kg – it has been planned by multiple companies to launch thousands of commercial small satellites over the next 15 years. Recent investments (in billions of dollars) in various ventures pertaining to small satellites confirm the continued interest of the commercial sector in the space industry. Small Satellite systems are likely to assume significant roles in the space industry. They have various applications especially in communications, security, meteorology, earth observation, research and exploration, navigation and surveillance. Earth observation and meteorology is likely to demonstrate a higher contribution in the global small satellite market.
The question if the small satellite technology is complementary or disruptive could be answered based on the below aspects, which drive the growth of the global small satellite market: Interest in small satellites has been growing since the late 90’s when the space industry was considered capital intensive and for few investors risky owing to the downfall of several satellite communication companies.; The detraction of bulky satellite components and standardisation of several satellite parts and features have resulted in substantial trimming of costs associated with the projects. This has increased the feasibility building, operating and launching of the Smallsats or small satellites.; Government aid in terms of finance in the research and development activities of small satellites has given tremendous support to the industry wherein new developments are possible, which trigger the growth of the global small satellite market.; Geospatial technology which uses earth-imaging small satellite for different purposes such as agriculture, mapping, intelligence, navigation and so on has driven the commercial sector, which again contributes to the growth of the global small satellite market. Another important aspect which drives the growth rate of the small satellite market is the capability of small satellites to plug new people and the global web-based market which in turn enables new business models and success rates.; Moreover, owing to low masses, several small satellites could be launched on a single launcher at cheaper rates.; Other advantages like robust propulsion, very accurate pointing, high data capability, substantial launching and very large apertures contribute to the growth of the global small satellite market.
Compared to Smallsats, larger satellites incur high costs with regards to components, launching vehicles, maintenance and expensive parts. Also, they cannot be utilised to accomplish certain missions. Here lies the biggest opportunity for small satellites that can accomplish missions such as: Data gathering from multiple points simultaneously using different formations, Inspection of larger satellites within the orbit (also called in-orbit inspection), University related research purposes, Low data rate communications. The overall growth of the global small satellite market could be affected by restraining factors such as lack of dedicated launch vehicles, design related restrictions, programmatic risks, scientific risks and costs. The potential benefits of the small satellite approach requires innovations in the programmatic styles. This emphasises the fact that small satellite programmes could also be costly and have slower implementation.
There are hidden costs associated with the system. The human related hidden costs are more prominent even in such an exciting work environment as it could take a toll on the workers to work for extra hours doing intense activity and dealing with strong pressures to ensure success. This reluctance from the management side could result in increased turnover issues and increased learning curve costs when new teams are incorporated.North America dominates the global small satellite market. Europe is second in the list followed by APAC and Rest of the World (RoW). North America is expected to remain in the 1st position in terms of market value share in the global small satellite market during the forecast period. APAC is also expected to show growth during the forecast period owing to the strong growth in countries like China and Japan. In 2014, India had contributed to the global market by launching commercial satellites into space at lower costs. This has prompted China to fast track the commercialisation of its rocket launches and give a push to the global small satellite market.Some companies operating in the global small satellite marketincludeSierra Nevada Corporation, ST Engineering Limited, Boeing, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., and Planet Labs.
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