Big satellites are the workhorses of the satellite industry, but smaller spacecraft are performing more and more missions as a growing number of customers are finding that small satellites are rugged, affordable and can perform many jobs.
According to Luca Maresi, a systems engineer at European Space Agency’s (ESA) European Space Research and Technology Center, a growing number of large institutional players such as ESA, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the French space agency, CNES, are using small satellites not only as technology demonstrators but also for operations. “In the early 1990s, small satellites were mainly designed and built by universities and research centers for experiments and to demonstrate satellite in-flight capabilities. Most of these experiments ended with a single flight without any significant follow-on activities,” says Maresi, who also co-chairs the biannual Small Satellite Systems and Services Symposium, which gathered 150 experts from more than 70 companies and research institutes in Sardinia in September.
Small satellites traditionally have been the domain of researchers and universities, but it is the geosynchronous market that has seen the most significant shift in the demand. Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. has provided its Star-2 small geosynchronous spacecraft for customers such as Optus Networks of Australia, PT Telekomunikasi Indonesia and the former Panamsat, and as recently as April announced a contract to provide a platform to France’s Alcatel Alenia Space, which is providing the AMC-21 satellite for New Jersey-based SES Americom.
“Throughout the past five years, Orbital’s most visible successes have come in the commercial market, with the Star platform becoming the dominant small satellite for commercial satellite operators,” says Ali Atia, senior vice president of Geo Satellites for Orbital. “As a percentage of the company’s overall revenue, commercial satellites now make up about a third of Orbital’s projected 2006 revenues of almost $800 million. That is up from approximately 10 percent of a smaller revenue base just five years ago.”
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Orbital is under contract to build and deliver 16 additional satellites and 12 major subsystems throughout the next three years, says Atia, who attributes this strong growth in the in the commercial communications sector to the fact that satellite operators are seeking a better balance between available capacity and customer demand than existed at the beginning of the decade. “They have learned that a large, expensive, high-powered satellite is not always the right answer for their fleet plan. Often, an established operator needs incremental capacity to augment its fleet rather than the large amount of capacity that a large satellite would add,” says Atia. “Satellite operators have become more disciplined in their deployment of capital. In many cases, it works to the advantage of a satellite operator to purchase one small satellite now, and then deploy additional capital for a second small satellite a couple years later, once they determine there is customer demand sufficient to justify the additional capital spending.” The traditional metric of “cost per transponder year” is giving way to a new metric, “cost of a revenue-producing transponder year,” says Atia. “A small satellite represents less risk to the business plan than beginning with a more expensive, harder-to-fill satellite.”
Carl Marchetto, executive vice president and general manager of Orbital’s Space Systems Group, also sees increased interest from the U.S. government in the role that small satellite systems can play in national security space programs, “where the longer-term trend is toward more responsive, faster-to-orbit space systems that can deliver critical information to the battlefield theater in a time of conflict,” he says. “We do expect that the market for science-related satellites that are primarily funded by NASA will be relatively flat for the next couple of years as the space agency focuses on moving beyond Earth orbit to implementing its Vision for Space Exploration with new initiatives,” he says.