The 10-year satellite forecast: Fewer, but bigger things flying over your head

spacex falcon satellite launcher

When it comes to satellites sometimes less is more.  In the next ten years the government expects to see fewer but ever larger satellites flung into space.  Specifically, the folks who monitor such things, the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC),  said in a draft report today that an average 20.8 satellites could be launched from 2009 through 2018, a decrease of one satellite when compared to the 2008 forecast of 21.8 and the 2007 forecast of 21.0 satellites per year. Actual launches per year were above 20 for the first time since 2002 and the highest total since 2000, with 23 satellites launched in 2008.

As for the weight, the group said there has been steady growth in satellite mass since 1993 and the trend will continues as the expected satellite mass is expected to remain near or slightly above 100,000 kilograms (220,400 lbs) forecast for the coming years with an all-time high of nearly 116,500 kg (257,000lbs) in 2009, the COMSTAC report stated.

At the same time, the trend in increasing average number of communication channels or transponders supported per satellite continues and, with the 2009 forecast at 993 transponders, is approaching the peak number of over 1,000 transponders launched in 2002. Using data compression and multiplexing, multiple video and audio channels can utilize a single transponder.

While satellite launches, like any space venture can be fraught with problems, there is no apparent shortage of companies ramping up to take advantage of space commercialization.  COMSTAC stated that launch vehicle industry is adding capacity with three new launch vehicle entrants capable of launching medium-class payloads in the immediate and mid-term periods. Land Launch successfully launched its initial commercial satellite in April 2008; SpaceX's Falcon 9 plans to launch in 2009; and Soyuz, launched from Kourou, plans to conduct its initial launch late in 2009. The Taurus II, currently in development, will also add launch capacity to support medium class payloads.

While satellite demand may outnumber available commercial launch competitors in the near future, these new launch vehicles along with new applications of existing systems, with new systems from other emerging space nations, will maintain sufficient launch capacity in the future, COMSTAC stated.

Some of the factors COMSTAC says affect launches for a given year are:

Satellite issues: Satellite manufacturers may have factory, supplier, or component issues that can delay the delivery of a spacecraft. Increased satellite complexity has increased the likelihood of a delay due to technical challenges or immature planning. Delays in delivery of spacecraft to the launch site in turn impact the planning and order of launches.

Launch vehicle issues: Launch vehicle manufacturers may have factory, supplier, or  component issues that can delay the availability of the launch vehicle or cause a delay at the launch pad. A launch failure or component problem can cause a stand-down to all subsequent launches until the anomaly is identified to determine if there are fleet issues that need to be resolved.

Scheduling problems: Both satellite and launch issues lead to scheduling issues. One individual launch delay has a cascading impact on subsequent launches scheduled in a given year. Missing one launch window may cause a significant delay, especially in a well-packed launch manifest.

The COMSTAC report belies some research and development aimed a building and launching smaller, les expensive satellites.  For example, the national Science Foundation (NSF) last year awarded a grant to SRI International to tackle the first mission of the tiny flying quadrangles known as CubeSats.

CubeSats are tiny satellites with dimensions of 10×10×10 centimeters, weighing a little less than 3lbs, and typically using commercial off-the-shelf electronics components, the NSF said.

Developed through joint efforts from the California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University, CubeSats are expected to offer a cost-effective way of supporting space weather and atmospheric research, the NSF said.

According to the NSF: "Recent advances in sensor and spacecraft technolo­gies make it feasible to obtain key measurements from low-cost, small satellite missions. Space-based measurements from small satellites also have great potential to advance discovery and understanding in other areas of atmospheric sciences."

The first CubeSat mission is slated for December, 2009 aboard a Minotaur-4 vehicle to be launched in Kodiak, Alaska. The mission, called Radio Aurora Explorer (RAX), will be a single triple-cube satellite, approximately the size of a half-gallon milk carton and weighing about three kilograms [about 7lbs], the NSF said.

According to the NSF, CubeSats will be launched as auxiliary payloads on DOD, NASA, or commercial launches via a system known as the Poly Picosatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD). The P-POD features a tubular design and can hold up to 34cm x 10cm x 10cm of deployable hardware, according to a CubeSat paper presented by California Polytechnic State University. The most common configuration is three picosatellites of equal size; however, CubeSats of different lengths can be accommodated in the same P-POD.

Beginning in 2009, NSF expects to launch two to four P-PODs every year, accommodating at between three to six satellite missions.

NASA too has been looking at small satellites for a variety of missions. Last year the agency said it built a tiny, low-cost satellite it says will be ideal for adventure seekers or companies with high-tech space applications who need to get into space quickly and relatively inexpensively. The Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology SATellite (FASTSAT) is 39.5 inches in diameter - not much larger than an exercise ball. It is hexagonally shaped and clocks in at a little less than 200 Lbs. It can carry a payload up to 110 Lbs.

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