The global small satellite market valued at $3.25 billion in 2020 is expected to skyrocket to $13.7 billion by 2030 with a Compound Annual Growth rate of 16.4%, according to statistics. This could also mean a dent in the US GDP. 

Small satellites “are low-cost alternatives that have allowed commercial enterprises, non-profit groups, and educational institutions to conduct missions in low-Earth orbit.” 

These small satellites have been revolutionary because they enable various scientific investigations and technology demonstrations to be carried out on time at a fraction of the cost that would usually be sent using regular-sized satellites. They also require smaller launch vehicles and even be used along with larger launch vehicles. They also use low-cost, reliable hardware and technology in making the satellites.

These are a few main reasons contributing to their rising demand. Other factors that might contribute are the demand for high-resolution imaging services and the need for more satellite data.

Birds-1 first cubesat deploy. (Jack Fischer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

There are also reports that small satellites’ “ride-sharing launch programs” allow sending multiple satellites into higher orbits with less time. This is because they can “easily fit into ride-sharing payloads along with other objects,” eliminating the need for extensive propulsion systems.

Small Satellites for Space Force

Jason Kim, chief executive officer of Millennium Space Systems, a Boeing Company, believes that the small satellite industry has come a long way over the last decade. Millennium is a company focused on national security space missions. They deliver small satellite prototypes and constellations that can be used in missile warning and defense, ISR, advanced space, and science across different orbits. According to him, the small satellite industry has come a long way,

Millennium flew a small satellite – Rapid Pathfinder – about a decade ago – when small sats weren’t really a consideration. Fast forward to today and we’re now in a “buy-in-bulk” environment for small sats. There’s a much greater use for smaller satellites today because we’ve been able to advance technology to the point we are building high-performance small sats. That’s why many architectures are relying on proliferated constellations.

Reports say that the small satellite market’s major players at the moment are Thales Group (France), L3Harris Technologies (US), Honeywell International Inc. (US), Lockheed Martin (US), and Northrop Grumman (US), and Airbus (Germany).

Small Satellites For National Security

The growing industry of small satellites is used for both commercial and government purposes. In a report titled Small Satellites: The Implications for National Security, it pointed out how the US security is slow in adopting such technology,

If the United States is to maintain space superiority, it will need to make substantive cultural, doctrinal, and operational changes to its multidimensional relationship with the commercial space industry.

Nicholas Eftimiades, the nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center, wrote the report. He also pointed out the US government’s “lack of understanding of commercial markets, outdated institutional processes, and a defense bureaucracy unwilling or unable to adapt to the changing environment.”

Furthermore, he pointed out that countries like China are already applying technology more rapidly than the US, which could result in the country being disadvantaged in sensing, communications, and on-orbit data processing.

Competing in this changing environment will require the United States to make substantial changes in long-established defense acquisition processes, research and investment strategies, data classification and distribution.

US Missile Defense

An article published by the Department of Defense noted that two Missile Defense Agency (MDA) nanosatellites called CubeSats launched into orbit as part of MDA’s CubeSat Networked Communications Experiment Block 1. According to Walt Chai, its director for space sensors,

These satellites will test key technologies that mitigate risk for systems, such as the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor. The CNCE Block 1 mission will demonstrate the viability of advanced communications technologies using reduced size, weight and power in support of missile defense communications architectures.

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They are working on a Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor payload that can detect and track hypersonic and ballistic missiles in low earth orbit. Thus, it can send immediate warnings and vital information to the Missile Defense System. In October 2021, it was reported that hypersonic missiles were live and actively being tested in Beijing.

A common hypersonic glide body (C-HGB) launches from Pacific Missile Range Facility, Kauai, Hawaii, at approximately 10:30 p.m. local time, March 19, 2020, during a Department of Defense flight experiment. (United States Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Hypersonic weapons can travel five times faster than the speed of sound, even up to 20 times more as technology becomes more advanced. This rate of speed makes it hard for the weapon, say a missile, to be quickly detected and intercepted. That’s what these small satellites aim to solve. Chai further said,

The missile defense architecture will require communications between interceptors, sensors and command and control systems to quickly identify, track and destroy incoming enemy missiles before they reach their targets. The CubeSats will allow the agency to demonstrate the capabilities quickly and affordably.