Conquering Big Data

Getting More Value From Smallsats

Apr 29, 2019


The space industry is abuzz on the topic of smallsats and their potential for applications ranging from commercial communications and agricultural crop monitoring to defense and intelligence missions. Some are calling this the evolution of an existing capability, while others declare it an industry revolution. Either way, for our government, the challenge is to get more value from smallsats.

Smallsats, or satellites that weigh less than 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms), have been around longer than most people realize. The oldest artificial object orbiting Earth to this day is actually a smallsat. NASA’s Vanguard I, launched on St. Patrick’s Day in 1958, is just over six inches in diameter and weighs slightly more than three pounds. About a third of the satellites launched over the last 20 years could also be classified as smallsats. 

In just the past few years, smallsats have really taken the spotlight. Market researcher Euroconsult reports that 330 smallsats were launched in 2017 and forecasts that more than 7,000 will be launched over the next decade. 
This number represents more than five times the number of smallsats that were launched in the previous decade. 

Driving the smallsat industry are two very basic needs: cost and speed to market. The recent emergence of privately developed launch systems has dramatically reduced launch costs, creating more launch opportunities for smallsats. The application of new and maturing technologies, such as 3D printing, is delivering efficiencies in satellite production as well. 

Today’s dynamic geopolitical environment is dictating a need to deliver much more responsive and flexible solutions. Rogue states and terrorist threats warrant credible capabilities in orbit much quicker than traditional acquisition timelines allow. Actionable intelligence in a timely fashion is no longer a luxury—it is a necessity.

Increased speed and reduced cost is particularly crucial as space becomes more of a contested environment. Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, has referred to large, exquisite satellites as “big, fat, juicy targets.” While these exquisites provide capability we cannot do without, they were designed for benign environments. 

Smallsats, when deployed in constellations, enable not only greater mission resiliency, but also more persistent coverage.  However, many question whether these smaller satellites can meet the performance requirements previously provided by larger systems. At Harris, we believe they can. While there will always be a tradeoff between cost and capability, we have been improving our solutions for large satellite systems in parallel with adapting our world-class technologies in sensors, structures, and ground systems to address smaller form factors. 

Last year, Harris launched our own demonstration smallsat, called HSAT, which was developed entirely using Harris internal funds. HSAT is a 6U-sized cubesat, with 1U representing a 10 x 10 x 10 centimeter cube. At 6U, HSAT is about the size of a personal briefcase. HSAT publicly showcases what we call our end-to-end, or turnkey, smallsat solution. 

We designed and built HSAT to be affordably launched as a “rideshare” with other satellites on the same launch vehicle. Since its launch last November, Harris has been successfully operating HSAT from a scalable ground system that we designed and installed at our facilities in Florida. From this ground system, we have the ability to provide advanced processing services and deliver data analyses that, if applied to a mission, would aid in effective and timely decision making.
One of the chief reasons for this initiative was to reduce risk for our customers. Industry estimates indicate the failure rate for cubesats to be 80 percent or greater. HSAT provides lessons learned that significantly improve success rates of future systems. 

An equally important aspect of HSAT is the demonstration of technologies that deliver real mission value. For example, we are demonstrating an advanced, miniaturized technology on board HSAT that enables smallsat missions to be reprogrammed on orbit. This technology is based on our Harris AppSTAR™ hosted payload architecture, which is on board the new Iridium NEXT constellation and currently serving multiple missions, including maritime ship and airplane tracking. 

At Harris, mission focus has been our approach since the beginning. We have developed a mission-ready, 6U smallsat called HyperCube™ that has been built around our proven hyperspectral sensing technology. Harris’ SpaceView™ product line includes smallsat-compatible imaging technology that is capable of capturing 1-meter resolution images. Our small High Compaction Ratio Reflector Antenna can unfurl from smallsats to support high data rate communications. With these types of electro-optic and radio frequency capabilities, smallsats can indeed be a viable option for many defense and intelligence missions.

Given that the pace of technology advancement continues to increase, it is hard to say if smallsats are the result of an evolutionary process or a revolutionary one. The next few years will be telling. But one thing is clear: when it comes to protecting our nation, the ability to anticipate mission needs and respond with valuable and innovative solutions—for large systems and small ones—remains essential.

Murali Krishnan is vice president and general manager of Harris’ Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) business. Harris is applying new ideas and perspectives to develop game-changing technological breakthroughs for ISR solutions that are more affordable and have lower size, weight, and power requirements.

Click here to view our entire publication on Mission Confidence: Increased resliliency, rapid response, managed risk.