White House: Small satellites bring “Moore’s Law” into space

Smallsats finding big role in space operations


Small satellites, sometimes called cubesats or just smallsats are a very popular way of getting inexpensive communications and surveillance into space quickly.

Looking to bolster that notion, the White House recently revealed a number of program that it says will help drive the use of smallsats even further. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) announced what it called the “Harnessing the Small Satellite Revolution” initiative, which basically brings together National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Defense, the Department of Commerce, and other Federal agencies, to promote and support government and private use of small satellites for remote sensing, communications, science, and the exploration of space. 

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“The recent advent of small sats, spacecraft that weigh anywhere from an ounce to as much as a few hundred pounds, has upended that status quo.  The same advances in electronics and communications technologies that enabled smartphones and put significant computing power in the palm of everyone’s hand are allowing scientists and engineers to design smallsats and coordinated networks of multiple smallsats that deliver novel and diverse capabilities from orbit.  These capabilities can sometimes be delivered at a fraction of the cost and time of legacy satellite systems.  Scientists and engineers can more quickly test their systems on orbit, allowing them to devise new, better systems more quickly, shortening the cycle of innovation and finally bringing “Moore’s Law” to space,” the OSTP wrote in blog announcing the program.

ecamsat1 0 NASA

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In announcing the program, the OSTP said:

  • NASA will propose up to $30 million to support data buys for smallsats, including up to $25 million to support data buys derived and purchased from non-governmental small spacecraft constellations and $5 million to advance small spacecraft constellation technologies.  In the near-term, NASA intends to purchase Earth Science observation data, such as (but not restricted to) moderate-resolution land imaging and radio occultation data.  The agency is also committing to a comprehensive review of space missions to determine which science and exploration needs could be met more effectively using smallsat technologies.
  • NASA will establish a Small Spacecraft Virtual Institute at Ames Research Center in the heart of Silicon Valley early in 2017.  The Virtual Institute will provide a “one-stop shop” for technical knowledge in the rapidly burgeoning small spacecraft technology fields.  It will also act within the agency to promote relevant programs, guidance, opportunities, and best practices, as well as share lessons learned on smallsat missions.  To take full advantage of the rapid iteration cycles associated with smallsats, NASA is also working to standardize its management practices associated with smallsat missions to reduce the administrative burdens associated with them in comparison to larger, more traditional space missions.
  • The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) awarded a $20 million contract to Planet, a startup currently building out a constellation of imagery smallsats in low earth orbit.  This allows NGA to obtain imagery of at least 85 percent of the Earth’s landmass every 15 days from Planet.  The imagery has many operational uses, including environmental monitoring, augmenting higher resolution capabilities, change detection and answering intelligence questions.
  • NGA will partner with the General Services Administration to develop an efficient, single point to access and purchase commercially-provided imagery, data, analytical capabilities, and services.  This effort, labeled the Commercial Initiative to Buy Operationally Responsive GEOINT (CIBORG), will connect with trusted commercial sources and match products to intelligence-user needs and match the right capability against the right intelligence problem.  
  • The Department of Commerce will elevate the role of the Office of Space Commerce to reflect the growing importance of commercial space as a driver of economic growth, productivity, and job creation.  This will let the Office’s Director to advise the Secretary of Commerce on commercial space issues and the office coordinate policy on critical issues such as licensing, export controls, export promotion, and open data.  The Director’s statutory role is to act as an advocate and ombudsman for the commercial space industry within the Federal government, and the Director will work with Federal agencies to help them take full advantage of the new capabilities (including smallsats, constellations of smallsats, dedicated launch capability for smallsats, and data analytics) that are being developed by the private sector.
  • The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) will release satellite datasets as part of two prize-driven challenges to achieve breakthroughs in the analysis of overhead imagery.  The Multi-View Stereo 3D Mapping Challenge invites researchers and entrepreneurs to generate accurate 3D point clouds from multi-view satellite imagery, while the Functional Map of the World Challenge will invite solvers to identify building functions and land use.

Further on the NASA front, the space agency said earlier this year it expects three cubesats will come from its ongoing Cube Quest Challenge, which will be decided by 2017. The Cube Quest Challenge offers a package worth $5 million for competitors to build unique propulsion and communications technologies for small, inexpensive satellite systems known as cubesats. NASA said it wanted this challenge to focus on building better communications and propulsion technologies for the cube-shaped satellites are typically about four inches long, have a volume of about one quart and weigh about 3 pounds.

NASA also said that its Space Launch System (SLS) first flight, which could happen by 2018, will also include 13 cubesats with a variety of missions.  Some of those missions have not been determined yet but here are the cubesats that have including:

  • Skyfire - Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, will develop a cubesat to perform a lunar flyby of the moon, taking sensor data during the flyby to enhance knowledge of the lunar surface.
  • Lunar IceCube - Morehead State University, will build a CubeSat to search for water ice and other resources at a low orbit of only 62 miles above the surface of the moon.
  • Near-Earth Asteroid Scout, or NEA Scout will perform reconnaissance of an asteroid, take pictures and observe its position in space.
  • BioSentinel will use yeast to detect, measure and compare the impact of deep space radiation on living organisms over long durations in deep space.
  • Lunar Flashlight will look for ice deposits and identify locations where resources may be extracted from the lunar surface.
  • CuSP – a “space weather station” to measure particles and magnetic fields in space, testing practicality for a network of stations to monitor space weather.
  • LunaH-Map will map hydrogen within craters and other permanently shadowed regions throughout the moon’s south pole.

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