The Future of Satellite Miniaturisation in Manufacturing

June 14, 2024
Neerja Shah
The Future of  Satellite Miniaturisation in Manufacturing

Sputnik 1, launched in 1957, marked the beginning of the space age as the first artificial satellite. It was a simple metal sphere housing a basic radio transmitter, measuring 58 centimetres in diameter and weighing 83 kilograms. By today's standards, it would be considered a small satellite. However, that was not by design but necessity—it reflected the nascent stage of technology at the time.

Over the next four decades, satellites evolved significantly, increasing in size, complexity, and cost. These larger satellites were crucial for advancements in communication, weather forecasting, and scientific research, but their high costs restricted access to well-funded governments and large corporations.

These large satellites came with substantial challenges and restrictions. They entailed high manufacturing and launch costs, driven by their higher payload capacities and longer operational lifespans. Additionally, their complexity often resulted in longer development timelines and limited deployment opportunities, requiring more extensive and intricate launch vehicles.

However, since the turn of the millennium, a remarkable transformation has occurred thanks to a new class of small satellites reshaping the space industry. These satellites, notably smaller in size and mass and built at a fraction of the cost of their predecessors, have significantly lowered the barrier to entry into space. They have allowed previously non-spacefaring nations to participate in the Space 2.0 adventure and a broader range of organisations, including innovative companies, startups, and educational institutions.

The Numbers Tell the Story

2022 saw the launch of a staggering 2,402 small satellites. These launches constituted 96% of all spacecraft launches for the year and 34% of all small satellites launched over the past decade.

Image credit: Bryce Tech

Euroconsult forecasts the launch of approximately 26,104 smallsats weighing under 500 kg between 2023 and 2032, averaging 1.5 tons of daily launch mass over the decade. Additionally, they anticipate the smallsat industry to soar to a market value of approximately $110.5 billion in the next decade, driven by global constellation replenishments and increasing demand for complex single satellite missions, particularly from government entities.

This surge in small satellite deployment signifies a pivotal shift in the space sector, fostering a wave of creativity and innovation. New space companies harness these smaller, more affordable satellites to pioneer diverse space applications, including Earth observation, telecommunications, scientific research, and technology demonstrations.

Catalysts Propelling the Growth of Small Satellites

Several factors have propelled the surge in the miniaturised satellite market. Automation has decreased launch costs, and technological innovation has driven the demand for compact satellites. Breakthroughs in electronics, materials science, and propulsion systems have empowered engineers to fit more functionality into smaller packages. This has resulted in a monumental leap in spacecraft design without compromising performance.

The rising demand for data and continuity has sparked a resurgence of interest and innovation in satellite constellation design, spurred by advances in satellite miniaturisation. These smaller, cost-effective satellites enable the deployment of extensive constellations composed of numerous interconnected units. This strategy provides enhanced coverage, redundancy, and flexibility compared to traditional larger satellites. The presence of multiple satellites in a constellation ensures data continuity, maintaining service even if individual satellites fail.

Agility and accessibility are fundamental to satellite miniaturisation. Since smaller satellites offer quicker deployment, iteration, and technology demonstration, they are ideal for rapid scientific research and commercial ventures. Their compact, modular nature allows for a swift response to changing requirements in the dynamic space industry.

Cost efficiency is a crucial aspect of small satellites. They utilise reusable, economical components and require less fuel for launch, facilitating mass production with standardised parts. Advancements in processing power, data storage, camera technology, solar array efficiency, and propulsion systems have further reduced production costs and democratised access to space.

Ride-sharing launch programs have expanded access to space research and reduced launch costs by accommodating miniaturised satellites alongside other payloads. This co-sharing of space allows for more efficient use of launches and decreases the time needed for deployment. For example, in January 2021, SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral carrying 143 small satellites. It broke the previous record set by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in 2017 when it deployed 104 satellites on a single rocket.

Additionally, SpaceX’s reusable rocket technology has further democratised access to space, enabling higher usage of small satellites worldwide.

Simultaneously, the cost of heavy launches to low-Earth orbit (LEO) has drastically come down – from $65,000 per kg to just $1,500 per kg, according to an estimate from McKinsey. This marks a remarkable reduction of over 95%, further providing a fillip to the small satellite industry.

The International Space Station (ISS) has been instrumental in advancing the small satellite revolution. Serving as both a deployment platform and a research facility, the ISS facilitated the launch of the first batch of small satellites from Planet, an event widely regarded as the unofficial start of the small satellite era. This dual role has significantly contributed to scientific experimentation and the broader adoption of small satellites in space exploration.

Miniaturised Sensors Revolutionising Earth Observation

The proliferation of small satellites has also sparked a wave of advancements in sensor technologies. Integrating these innovative sensors into small satellite platforms has unlocked an unprecedented Earth Observation data treasure trove and driven progress across various sectors.

The rise of artificial intelligence, particularly machine learning and deep learning, has enabled organisations to harness this wealth of high-quality Earth observation data. This accessibility has powered diverse commercial applications, including monitoring food supply chains, tracking greenhouse gas emissions, and managing energy resources.

For instance, Pixxel is pivotal in democratising access to hyperspectral imagery by developing sensors tailored for small satellites. Pixxel was established to improve Earth observation data, targeting issues like gas leaks and oil spills with space-based hyperspectral imaging sensors.

Pixxel embarked on a design process focusing on developing hyperspectral cameras tailored for space missions. This involved breaking down the camera into optics, sensors, and electronics. While the electronics were relatively straightforward, creating novel solutions for optics and sensors was crucial to ensure optimal performance in the space environment.

Pixxel’s compact and powerful sensors promise to transform high-resolution data accessibility, enabling industries and researchers to leverage hyperspectral imagery for diverse applications, including agriculture, environmental monitoring, urban planning, and disaster management.

Onward and Upward: Exploring Future Frontiers

The increasing demand for satellite-based services is propelling the rapid expansion of the commercial space industry. Small satellite manufacturers can spur growth and diversification by exploring niche markets and innovative applications.

Small satellites offer the advantage of being customisable to meet specific mission needs, enhancing flexibility and the ability to develop tailored solutions for Earth observation, telecommunications, scientific research, or technology demonstrations.

The small satellite industry also promotes collaboration among manufacturers, startups, academia, and government agencies. By pooling expertise, resources, and infrastructure, these partnerships accelerate innovation, enhance knowledge sharing, and tackle shared issues.

However, the industry faces many challenges, such as limited market access, dominance by established players, profitability issues, and constellation management complexities. Moreover, the life span of small satellites is relatively short, leading to high disposal costs, limited data resolution, and performance.

Despite these obstacles, the sector is poised for growth, as the potential benefits significantly outweigh the difficulties. Initiatives such as open-source hardware and software platforms, technology incubators, and collaborative research programs will be crucial for nurturing the industry's growth and maturation.

Pixxel's Small Satellites: Paving the Way for a Sustainable Future

Satellite miniaturisation paves the way for innovation, affordability, and accessibility in space technology. By overcoming manufacturing challenges and capitalising on the opportunities offered by miniaturised satellites, we are entering a new era of discovery and connectivity. In the New Space race, small satellites are set to play a pivotal role in shaping Space 2.0.

Pixxel's hyperspectral imaging satellites mark a significant milestone in Earth observation. Our upcoming constellation of small satellites with advanced hyperspectral sensors will provide unprecedented insights into the vital statistics needed for monitoring our planet. This technology has the potential to revolutionise industries such as agriculture, water resources management, environmental monitoring, urban development, energy, and mining, offering essential insights for informed decision-making.

Join us in this transformative journey in satellite innovation. Discover how Pixxel's hyperspectral imaging can empower your organisation. Contact our sales team to learn how Pixxel's technology can benefit your operations and contribute to a healthier planet. Together, let's advance the future of satellite technology and strive for a world where the health of the Earth is continuously monitored and safeguarded from above.