In the final article of a three-part look at the Nano / Micro Satellite market, Corentin Guillo, Head of Missions at the Satellite Applications Catapult, considers what impact the huge number of small satellites could have in terms of space debris.
As depicted in the previous two articles (‘Small is the new big’ and ‘Agility and Investment’), space is currently experiencing more than a transition…better described as a disruption. The commoditisation of space technology, the low cost access to space, the innovative business model, and availability of private investment are shifting the paradigm of upstream technology to downstream applications markets.
As a result, by being more affordable, growing numbers of organisations will move into this fast-growing market very soon. Just recently, two major commercial organisations have announced their intention to invest in constellations of small satellites (4,000 for Space X and 650 for Virgin Galactic) to broadcast Internet to the world. This reignites the debates around debris and the exploitation of space. Indeed, although space is infinite, very few orbit planes are exploitable for remote sensing, telecommunication or navigation. The challenge we’re facing now with space is the same as the one we’ve been discarding for years on our planet – how can we operate responsibly in space and maximise its sustainable exploitation? In other words, how can we take the lessons from the Global Warming issues and mitigate the risk of pollution in space?
Due to their nature (difficult to track from the ground, no-propulsion device for collision avoidance manoeuvre, and their increasing numbers in space) nano/micro-satellites may be perceived as a threat for larger satellites’ operation. In reality, this is completely the opposite and such a perceived risk can even be mitigated by adopting a more responsible approach. The in-orbit collision risk is very unlikely (almost nil) to happen between two nano/micro-satellites due to their size and their composition (compact structure implies reduced cross section). Collision with larger satellites could be avoided by making mandatory development to every nano/micro-satellite to be equipped with a tracking device (retro-reflector as proposed by Dr. Stuart Eves during the last Re-Inventing Space Conference in London) which will make them trackable from the ground to offer means to larger satellites to undertake collision avoidance manoeuvre.
The other considerable risk is the pollution of space orbits and ground damage during re-entry. Again, although the numbers of nano/micro-satellites to be launched will be much greater than larger satellites, the orbit they are operating in make them disposable within a few years. Indeed, it has been proven that using high fidelity mathematical models such as the work undertaken by the University of Strathclyde would demonstrate that A. the nano/micro-satellite In-Orbit Lifetime will comply with the 25 years guideline, and can even be accelerated with de-orbit device such as solar sails, and B. nano/micro-satellites will never cause any damage on the ground as they will disintegrate into the atmosphere due to their conceptual nature.
As a consequence, although current applicable regulatory regimes were defined decades ago for large satellites, they would need to be revised in order to offer alternatives for nano/micro-satellite operators adopting a responsible approach to maximise the exploitation opportunities rather than blocking their expansion.
This responsible approach has been well captured and implemented by few countries who are willing to take the liability on behalf of their nano/micro-satellite operators in return for the development of high growth commercial opportunities. Other countries are still unlikely to adopt such a position and would take the risk to see their NewSpace entrepreneurs flying away to succeed in the later ones.
Either way, the beauty of this overall NewSpace trend is that we’ll not have to wait decades before being the witness of the first successes or failures; it will be a matter of three to five years before seeing if great visionary NewSpace start-ups such as Planet Labs, Skybox Imaging, and Generation Orbit or NewSpace entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk (Space X), Peter Platzer (Spire) or Craig Clark (Clyde Space) have managed to disrupt the space sector and open-up a NewSpace Age.