Satellite Technology Miniaturization: What are the Challenges and Opportunities of Going Small?

earth

Thanks to continuous technology miniaturization, devices around us on Earth are decreasing in size. Where offices in the 90s and 00s used to be filled with desktops, we are now able to stay connected through ultrathin laptops and smartphones. A relatively similar trend is taking off in space, albeit for very different and complex applications.


Large geostationary orbit (GEO) satellite orders have been at a record low in the past three years. Many factors can be appointed as causes for the slow down, including the impending arrival of small launchers, the development of smallsat constellations in low Earth orbit (LEO), and the popular cubesats (satellites between 1-10kg).

Traditionally, costs for satellite development have been extremely high, especially for larger (often over 500kg) GEO satellites. By implementing technology miniaturization, satellite development and launch can become cheaper. “What many people are doing is migrating commercial IP into satellite applications. The space community would traditionally go out and develop expensive 32-bit or 64-bit processors, but money is limited,” says Michael Bear, technical director at BAE Systems. “Now, organizations take an Intel processor or a similar capable processor from a cell phone or PC, and modify it so the processor can withstand the harsh environment of space. This is more cost-effective and results in a satellite going into orbit a lot faster.”

While using commercially available miniaturized technology may sound like a simple solution, going from big to small in space brings challenges to the industry. “If you think about a communications satellite the size of a minibus in GEO, you know that there is a lot of volume in there. The space industry has been more constrained by mass than by volume. We are not used to having to miniaturize and pack things very tightly,” says Chad Frost, deputy director of engineering at NASA Ames Research Center.

quoteConsumer electronic devices have caught the attention of many New Space players in the market. “Spacecraft are not traditionally the domain of expertise for miniaturized technologies. It is a skillset the industry does not yet have – we need to learn how to miniaturize in an affordable and safe way; for example, you want to ensure temperature-sensitive components are not packed in next to components that naturally get very hot in orbit. This is something we rarely had to think about,” says Frost. Another challenge is the component’s ability to withstand radiation and extreme temperature fluctuations among many other events that do not occur within Earth’s atmosphere.

Smallsats have caught the eye of many new players in the market and this development is closely followed by ‘traditional’ spacecraft manufacturers and operators. “We have to consider the laws of physics that come in to play when using micro- and cubesats – there is only so much you can do from those smaller platforms.  We do look at cubesats because organizations like NASA and the universities are working with them. Why? Because they are affordable and suggest an alternative to NASA hosting payloads on commercial satellites”, says Bryan Benedict, senior director for innovation and satellite programs at SES. Benedict does add that there are also concerns about using smaller satellites for communications purposes given their shorter lifecycle and current technical capabilities. “You would need hundreds of small satellites in orbit, and as they will become obsolete and need replacing after a few years, you will end up with significant orbital debris concerns.”

While extremely small satellites such as 3U (30 x 30 x 30cm) and 6U (60 x 60 x 60cm) cubesats were initially very popular, Frost now notices a shift to larger cubesats. “3U used to be the sweet spot. Then we saw a lot more people moving towards 6U because it added more volume, making the miniaturization challenge somewhat easier. People are now starting to say: ‘I can’t fit my technology in a 6U cubesat, shall we move to 12U or a microsat?’. Some organizations will save money by going to slightly larger satellites as they will not have to miniaturize their technology to extreme small measures.” Microsats are larger than cubesats, weighing between 10-100kg.

As small launch vehicles are soon becoming operational, the launch bottleneck is set to decrease, opening up more room for frequent small satellite launches. “At the moment, there are only dedicated rides available for larger spacecraft. This, of course, gives manufacturers and operators the option of secondary rides for smaller satellites,” says Frost. As such launches often can’t guarantee the right desired orbit, the small launch industry is likely to have a big impact on the further development of small satellites. Frost concludes: “People are looking towards the emergence of small launch vehicles. As soon as they are online, everything opens up.”


 Want to hear about the latest development in satellite technology miniaturization? Join us on the Satellite Systems day on Wednesday, May 23 at Space Tech Conference 2018 to hear from satellite manufacturers BAE Systems, Ball Aerospace, Boeing, and Raytheon. You can register for a conference pass here.

Some of our exhibitors are experts in small technology – why not pay them a visit at the show?

 

ÅAC Microtec North America
booth 8034

Arralis

booth 3018

Enpulsion GmbH
booth 3015

Glenair
booth 3023

NovaWurks
booth 9008

Omnetics Connector Corporation
booth 5025

PhaseFour

booth 1010

Printech Circuit Labs

booth 3017

Smiths Interconnect
booth 7026

Spacety
booth 3005