Florian Deconinck from the Satellite Applications Catapult, explains how the Catapult will keep the space industry and other stakeholders up-to-date about developments in the small satellites sector.
A maturing sector
The use of small satellites (commonly defined as weighing less than 500kg) allows a complementary approach to the ‘heavy’ satellites (typically several tons) that have historically driven the space applications. This nascent sector of small satellites continues to explore the commercial possibilities in Earth Observation, communication, GNSS and science capabilities enabled by lower entry cost to space.
Within the small satellite sector, nanosatellites (<10kg satellite) represent more than 65% of satellites launched over the past four years, and more than 95% for 2017 (as of 25 July). Amongst the companies operating them which have come to the fore in recent years is Planet, which started with Earth Observation imagery, launching its first Doves in 2013. The same year, Spire launched its Ardusat education platform for democratising access to space, before its first Lemur nanosatellites for vessel tracking and weather data were launched in 2014. In June 2017, Sky and Space Global launched its first three ‘diamonds’ for narrow band communication and demonstrated inter-satellite links in July.
More than 55 small satellite constellations are planned over the next five years. Concurrently, this growth is also driving a transformation in the launch market, which is inspiring starts-ups and established companies to lower the cost of getting to space. More than 50 small satellite launch vehicles are being developed, which could provide the frequency of launch and dedicated orbits that heavier launch vehicles struggle to provide to small satellites.
Frequent market intelligence
In this fast-growing market, reliable and frequent information is the basis of understanding and decision-making. One of the Satellite Applications Catapult’s roles is to inform the space industry and other stakeholders about developments in the small satellites sector. By purposely combining engineering, commercial and economist backgrounds from different teams at the Catapult, we started sharing our different views so we could provide a broader perspective to different audiences ranging from research to industry, agencies or investors. Our new series of free quarterly reports are designed to succinctly capture this knowledge, for anyone to consult, use and provide feedback on. The first one was published at the start of July 2017.
One of our roles is to improve knowledge of the space sector to all audiences. This is especially important due to the early stage and rapid evolution of the sector. The scope of opportunities offered by small satellites is still being explored and tested. Sharing and consolidating our knowledge and understanding should help explore the full potential of this sector, providing evidence on market trends and potential barriers to growth, and making this information free and easily accessible.
The two main areas we are currently observing are the small satellites being launched (number, application, mass and orbit) and small launch vehicles that can carry them.
In addition to our quarterly reports, we will be publishing ad-hoc articles on specific themes where we have gathered enough information. We are keen to maximise their value, so welcome feedback and corrections from the community. If you identify anything in the reports which you are unsure about or other areas of the market that require focus, please contact us at MarketIntelligence@sa.catapult.org.uk.