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What is a ‘smallsat’ and why should you care?

You may not know it but we are living through a renaissance of commercial activity in space.  Dozens of satellites are being launched in the form of smallsats.  Experts predict smallsat activity will jump by two-thirds over the next five years, as compared to the last five years.  One glancing at the front page of Space News recently could be forgiven for thinking the only item the website covers is satellites: most headlines mentioned “smallsats” in one way or another.

BlackSky Global Says it’s Poised To Cover Globe with 60 Smallsats

OneWeb Taps Airbus To Build 900 Internet Smallsats

Smallsat Propulsion Company Wins Defense Department Contract 

But what exactly is a smallsat?  How is it different from a regular satellite?

According to NASA, small satellites have a ‘dry mass’ – that is, what their mass is without fuel – of less than 180 kilograms.  However, smallsats can be much, much smaller than that.  Specifically, “On the lower mass end, there are [satellites] with a mere size of a large postage stamp and with a mass well below 1 kg.  Spacecraft are generally grouped according to their mass, where small spacecraft include minisatellites with a mass of 100-500 kg,  microsatellites with a mass of 10-100 kg, nanosatellites with a mass of 1-10 kg, and picosatellites with a mass below 1 kg.”  For comparison, a conventional communications satellite can easily mass 6,000 kilograms and be the size of a school bus.

Small satellites range from small to very small. Credit: NASA.
Small satellites range from small to very small. Credit: NASA.

According to the same report, “CubeSats are a type of small spacecraft that weigh only a few kilograms and are built using a standard form factor relying on a 10 cm3 cube.  CubeSats can be composed of a single cube (nicknamed a ‘1U’ unit) or several cubes combined forming, for instance, 3U or 6U units.”  CubeSats are a particularly popular form of smallsat because they are a standardized, ‘off-the-shelf’ solution for the smallsat developer.

Geniuses working on a Cubesat. Credit: ESA.
Geniuses working on a teeny-tiny Cubesat. Credit: ESA.

Ok so, basically, smallsats are simple, cheap satellites.  Why does this matter?

Smallsats can do a lot of the same things expensive, bus-sized satellites can do but they can do them cheaply and, in some cases, more effectively.  Because smallsats are so cheap they can be launched in constellations.   In this way many smallsats can take the place of one big satellite.  This has huge implications for global communications, imaging and weather forecasting.

Global wifi

Two very well-funded companies (Google and OneWeb) are moving forward with plans to provide high-speed internet access anywhere in the world using constellations of small satellites.  Consider the implications of high-speed wifi anywhere you can see the sky.  You could replace or augment your cellphone data plan with a more capable satellite wifi plan.  You could stream movies or video chat anywhere: in the woods, on an airplane, or far out at sea.  Lost hikers and missing airliners will become a thing of the past.   The possibilities for the developing world are even more exciting: farmers and workers can get crop and job information more easily.  Dictators and tyrants will have a harder time terrorizing their populations when news and information are literally streaming through the air.  The implications of cheap, high-bandwidth wifi enabled by constellations of small satellites are enormous.

Small satellites will cover the globe.
Small satellites will cover the globe.

I see you!

Fleets of small satellites will be able to monitor the entire globe using advanced video cameras.  One will literally be able to see the entire globe in video in real-time.  The type of satellite imagery that is currently available only to militaries and intelligence agencies will become available to everyone.  And the quality and coverage of that imagery will be much, much better.  Air traffic around busy airports or even vehicular traffic on individual city streets will be observed and directed.  Entire fields of crops will be assessed from orbit.  Natural disasters or other emergencies will be managed using orbital imaging.

Fire the weatherman

With better imaging and a pervasive presence over the entire globe, weather forecasting will become more accurate.  This will have obvious benefits for the farmer, the sports fan, the commuter and pretty much everyone who spends any time outdoors at all.

But wait, there’s more!

These benefits are all great but the smallsat revolution will have an even greater impact.  For decades space enthusiasts have been waiting for ‘the killer app’ that will open up space.  A product or service that will catalyze the creation of the spacefaring civilization many have been waiting for since the Apollo days.   Smallsats might be that killer app – they might create an industry that lays the groundwork for moon colonies, trips to Mars, giant space stations and all the trappings of a space cadet fantasy land.

Smallsats may be the killer app that opens up space.
Smallsats may be the killer app that open up space.

How so?  The simple answer is launch costs.  Smallsats will provide payloads for launch vehicles.  Lots of them.  If lots of rockets are launching stuff into space all the time, the technology will mature faster and the price to access space will drop.  This could be the start of a virtuous cycle.  The lower launch costs become, the more other space businesses become feasible.  And the more space businesses there are, the more rockets will launch, lowering launch costs even further.  Eventually, hopefully, launches will be so cheap, safe and frequent that the really big exciting space projects become feasible.

So now you know why small satellites are such a big deal.  Smallsats are here, and they’re about to become much more numerous.  They will change your life and, just maybe, they might be your ticket to space one day.