Does Size Really Matter? Talking Satellites with Industry Experts 

Conference Q&A

Satellite miniaturization was a major topic of discussion at Space Tech Conference 2018. During the 'The Big Squeeze: Technological Challenges and Requirements for Large Technology in Small(er) Satellites' session, moderator Lisa Kuo from the Aerospace Corporation quizzed speakers from Boeing, Ball Aerospace, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, and Sky and Space Global on the challenges of moving from large to small satellites.

Speakers:

  • Lisa Kuo, head of commercial programs and business development, The Aerospace Corporation
  • Michael Bear, technical director, BAE Systems
  • Steve MacAnlis, communications systems engineering manager, Satellite Design Center, Boeing Space Systems
  • Dr. Louis Christen, director, research and technology, Northrop Grumman
  • Michael Gazarik, Vice President of Engineering, Ball Aerospace
  • Meir Moalem, CEO and Founder, Sky and Space Global

Lisa Kuo, The Aerospace Corporation: There is some focus inside your company to go small, right? Is the push of going small external or internal? Meaning, is it customer driven? Or this is something that your company wants to do because of its beneficial to your internal organization?

Michael Bear, BAE Systems: Our customers said that we are responsible. We are responsive to our customers. From a government and a commercial viewpoint, there is a drive for small in both of these areas. There is an increased drive for cubesats and smallsats. Also, for the miniaturization of electronics and the ability to produce higher performance in a smaller package to produce more on-board processing and less downlinks. So, I would say we are customer driven.

Steve MacAnlis, Boeing Space Systems: I would say that we are customer driven as well, but we look at it from two different perspectives. From one perspective, there is interest in smaller satellites going to constellations, so we are motivated to miniaturize for those missions. However, on the other side we are interested in miniaturization to get up very high capacities to maximize our dollar per usable bit.

Dr. Louis Christen, Northrop Grumman:I agree with what both folks said. I think it is customer driven for the most part, but we also see the internal benefit as well, both miniaturization for a smallsat’s sake, and to apply to our larger satellites, like Michael pointed out. I think there is tremendous capability to utilize these smallsats for gap fillers and for mission augmentation. It is harder to get those capabilities onto a program of record, especially late in the game.

 

Lisa Kuo, The Aerospace Corporation: This question is for Ball Aerospace. I understand that you guys have been doing a lot of miniaturization and making a lot of progress on that. What is your general philosophy for going small? Whether it's small in size, small in lifespan, what is your general philosophy? Are you trying to make it small to get a shorter lifespan or to make it cheaper?

Michael Gazarik, Ball Aerospace: We are customer driven, too, by the mission that we see from the customer. In most cases, that means, at least to date, tech demonstrations, gap fillers, demos. Typically, lifetime is not a driving requirement. The driver would be cost: a more affordable way to demonstrate, to achieve. It is what we see in the customer community, and it is what I saw in NASA at science [mission directorate]. It started at the mission folks in the customer community, so the science community, saying: “You cannot make scientific measurements with these kinds of systems; can't make the measurement like some systems do, such as in Aqua and Terra.” That is true, you cannot. What took a while was, “Is there another way to get what you want?” I think that was the opening valve, that was what opened the gate, and it took a lot. I think we're seeing that a little bit on DOD intelligence. Can it replace what's up there today? No, it cannot, just due to physics. However, there are other ways to get those answers and I think that's what we're seeing.

 

Lisa Kuo, The Aerospace Corporation: Here's a question for Meir. I heard a lot of great benefits of going small and it is what Sky and Space Global is doing, striving to really make a revolution in the industry. Have you considered going big?

Meir Moalem, Sky and Space Global: Well, it is not about size. In this case, size really doesn't matter. It is about what you are trying to achieve. For us, we are trying to provide a specific service, a specific application. We are trying to do that with the lowest cost possible. Now, fortunately for us, the technology has reached a stage where we could do it on nanosatellites. If we were trying to do it with, let's say 100-kilogram satellites, it wouldn't be a good business case because the capex would be too high, and the business model would not really be achievable. Again, technology has reached the point where we can use it and move forward and provide the same services or very similar services to existing satellite communication providers at a fraction of the cost. What my colleague said is quite right: think about remote sensing, about Earth imagery. Up until a few years ago, it wasn’t government's business. Usually what happens is that you go to the customer and you ask them, “What do you want?” They say, “The best possible resolution.” So, we are asking, “Okay, what if I could give you, for the same price, instead of 20 centimeter resolution, two-meter resolution, but I would give you 100 times more satellites?” Usually, the customer doesn't really understand that question and they say: “No, I want 20-centimeter resolution, anything less is not good for me.” They are not really considering that you can do it in a different way. You can give 100 satellites with two meters resolution and provide a visit of 10 minutes, 20 minutes. What happened? The private sector took in and look what Planet is doing. Planet is using more than 100 satellites with, let's say, two-meter resolution and they can provide real services and sell it to the market, because things have developed, and you can do it in a different way today.

 

Lisa Kuo: What are the challenges that you have seen when you start going small?

Dr. Lou Christen, Northrop Grumman: The antenna is a big challenge for us, I think. For some of the missions, you can get away with a very small antenna, and that is fine, if it is one megabit per second communication, for example. But with other examples, you can't. You can't get a five gigabit per second downlink with a small antenna. You will be running into link budget challenges. The high compaction ratio antennas, while still fitting in a small form factor has been a challenge, and it has driven some of these out of the cubesat class into more of the ESPA-class (EELV Secondary Payload Adapter). It is not about the size necessarily, it is really about what makes sense for each mission and what is the most cost-effective solution for a particular mission.

Michael Gazarik, Ball Aerospace: We mainly focus on the electro-optical area so, again, it is the calibration system. On the LandSat imagery satellites we build today, a lot of that, again, has a fairly large and complex calibration target that the center looks at. Miniaturizing that and finding ways, especially in the photonic region has been the challenge that we have been addressing.

Steve MacAnlis, Boeing Space Systems: One of our challenges is being able to meet the mission if you go small enough. A lot of our missions are quite large. Another challenge is that technologies do not all scale equally. We've seen a lot of scaling in electronics, particularly digital. Things like solar and batteries haven't scaled as quickly, so that is another challenge. Then sometimes physics. I also agree on aperture size. There have been improvements on ways to shrink apertures and to deploy them, but that is definitely a challenge.

Michael Bear, BAE Systems: For us, going small has presented a challenge. There is some limit to Moore's law and the cost per part. We are talking about cubesats and smallsats. There is a cost associated with putting up cubesats and customers want a reasonable cost. The ability to utilize the advanced technologies, maybe through advanced packaging and other things to get cost-effective processors and cost-effective modules, is something that we're always looking to improve.


The Space Tech Conference agenda for 2019 will released early next year.