The Unintended Consequences of Smallsats

“Cumulative smallsat market value to reach $37 billion by 2027” according to NSR’s Small Satellite Markets 5th Edition report. As significant as this statistic is, the more consequential one is that there will be 6,500 small satellites in orbit by 2027. While the overall growth of the smallsat market is beneficial for the space economy as it is helping lower the barriers to entry and create new revenue streams in the (relatively) near term, the impact of this growth on the space ecosystem in the long term is less often discussed.

In 2009, Iridium satellite collided with a non-functional and therefore un-controlled Kosmos 2251 satellite – which by ESA’s definition is considered space debris. No prior warning of a possible collision was considered as the reason for this collision. While it is hard to accurately forecast a collision probability, the relevant factors to consider are the number satellites in orbit, maneuverability of those satellites, debris in orbit at the time and the ability to track the objects in order to provide prior warning. With the increasing number of satellites and the increasing debris (from either collisions or events such as the recent ASAT launch by India), it can be agreed that more collisions in the near future are more than certain.

While this issue is relevant to all satellites in all orbits, it is more of a concern for smallsats for two main reasons: Firstly, smallsats comprise the largest share of total satellite launches over the next decade due to the high number of constellations planned as well as the higher number of satellites per constellation in cases like OneWeb and SpaceX’s Starlink. Secondly, due to the small size of some of these smallsats, it makes it quite challenging to track them to be able to provide accurate and timely warnings. These issues lead to a higher risk of collision – either with each other or with existing debris in orbit, which further lead to more debris, also known as Kessler Syndrome.

NSR’s Small Satellite Markets report estimates that 39% of all smallsats launched over the next 10 years will be <10 kg. The report also discusses the growing trends of pico sat (< 1 kg) launches. Most of the existing space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities are not able to accurately and precisely track objects less than 10cm, which makes small satellites and especially any small debris created from these satellites almost impossible to track. The relatively low maneuvering capability of some of these smallsats muddy the waters further.

Over the years the issue of space debris has become more recognized. This has further led to a growth in SSA providers – with a wide range of services, and various end-of-life disposal capabilities. Unfortunately, while these service providers are helping the technology get up to speed fast, the market is not ready to utilize these services – most of which not acknowledging the severity or the urgency of the issue.

Bottom Line

Smallsats have brought about a very welcome and much needed change to the space industry. It has bridged the gap between innovation and implementation. The ability to have an impact on the grass root level using satellites has also become possible because of the use of smallsats. However, while the impact here on Earth is known and emerging, it might be time to consider the impact that this growing market is having in space, especially with our fast-growing reliance on space-based applications.

This article was originally posted during my time at Northern Sky Research as part of NSR’s blog The Bottom Line.