The following timeline follows the birth and evolution of the small satellites market. The timeline considers the following:
- Space, launch, and ground segments
- Standards and de facto standards
- National environment, e.g. policy, legislation, regulation
- International environment, e.g. treaties, principles, best practices, and guidelines
- Commercial innovators
- Significant milestones
- Government programs, e.g. NRO, USAF, NASA, SBIR
Small Satellites Timeline
Passed long before the first spaceflight, the Communications Act has been amended over time to govern requirements for commercial satellite operations, licensing, and coordination in the use of the radio spectrum.
1945 Satellite Communications System Proposed
British science fiction writer and inventor Arthur C Clarke (1917-2008) publishes an article that shows how geostationary satellites could be used for worldwide radio and television broadcasts and communication.
1957 Start of the First Space Age
The space age began on October 4, 1957 with the Soviet launch of Sputnik 1, the first human-made object to orbit the Earth. This event surprised many in the United States and raised fears that the Soviet Union was pulling ahead in missile technology. It ignited a frenetic competition for superiority in space. In pursuit of that superiority, both countries made significant investments in order to attain rapid technological advances in rockets, satellites, and human spaceflight. Because of these advances, the United States and Soviet Union quickly became the dominant powers in space.
From 1957 through 1990, the United States and Soviet Union were responsible for 93 percent of all satellites launched into space.
Source: Escalation & Deterrence in the Second Space Age
Soviet Union’s first (small) satellite 82 kg
1958 Explorer 1
United States’ first (small) satellite 14 kg
1958 National Aeronautics & Space Act
The act established NASA as well as U.S. objectives in space: expanding space knowledge; creating and improving space vehicles; studies of benefits from space operation; preserving the United States as a space leader; and sharing discoveries with defense agencies.
1960 Smallsats as Pathfinders
A large number of small satellites were launched throughout the 1960’s to obtain space environment data, flight test various technologies, and provide operational communications.
Source: 25 Years of Small Satellites
1962 Start of the Commercial Space Age
The first commercial use of satellites was the Telstar 1 (small) satellite which was launched in 1962. The satellite and launch were paid for by AT&T and Bell Telephone Laboratories. Telstar 1 was capable of relaying television signals across the Atlantic Ocean, and was the first satellite to transmit live television, telephone, fax, and other data signals.
1971 Intel 4004 Microprocessor
The World’s first commercially produced microprocessor.
1972 Beginning of Landsat Program
The Earth Resources Technology Satellite is launched. This beqins the longest-running programme of satellite imagery of the Earth, later renamed Landsat. Landsat instruments acquire millions of images that are used to evaluate natural and human changes to the Earth.
1977 Start Of Small Satellite Doldrums
Satellites grew heavier over time as satellite functionality expectations and launch vehicle payload capacity to low Earth orbit increased. Microsatellites, nanosatellites, and picosatellites were replaced by heaver, much more capable, spacecraft over time. This trend resulted in the “Small Satellite Doldrums” that started in approximately 1977 and lasted 10 years. During that period of time, very few microsatellites were launched and no nano or pico satellites were launched.
Source: 25 Years of Small Satellites
1978 Kessler Syndrome
The “Kessler syndrome” (also called the ”’Kessler effect”, “collisional cascading”, or “ablation cascade”), proposed by NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler in 1978, is a scenario in which the density of objects in low Earth orbit due to space pollution is high enough that collisions between objects could cause a cascade in which each collision generates space debris that increases the likelihood of further collisions.
Foreshadowing the future…
1984 The Commercial Space Launch Act
The law grants the U.S. Department of Transportation regulatory oversight of commercial space flight, it indemnifies companies for large third-party damages and it establishes regulations for commercial human space flight.
1984 Land Remote-Sensing Commercialization Act
The law is primarily concerned with transferring the U.S. government-owned Landsat satellite program to private industry, allowing companies to take over operation of the Earth-imaging satellite constellation.
1987 End of Small Satellite Doldrums
Technology and economics reversed the trend towards larger satellites starting in 1987. Technology advances increased the scope of functionalities possible using small satellites, e.g. microprocessors, solar cells, batteries, microelectronics, software, and the Internet.
Source: 25 Years of Small Satellites
1990 Start of Secondary Payloads Market
On Jan. 21, 1990, an Ariane-4 put the French SPOT-2 Earth resources satellite into orbit, along with six microsatellites. This was the first flight of the Ariane Structure for Auxiliary Payload (ASAP) ring that could hold up to six small satellites with a maximum mass of 50-kg each and maximum dimensions of 35 x 35 x 60-cm. The maximum mass that could be put onto the ASAP was 200 kg.
Microsatellites and nanosatellites now had a standard, commercial, launch service that could put 6 satellites at a time into orbit.
Source: 25 Years of Small Satellites
1991 Start of the Second Space Age
As the cold war came to an end in 1991, the space domain began to transition into what has been called the “second space age.” This transition was the result of nearly simultaneous shifts in the commercial uses of space, the geopolitical environment on Earth, and the military balance of power. The fall of the Soviet Union meant that there were no longer two superpowers locked in a stable, long-term competition in space.
Beginning in the 1990s space capabilities began to spread to other countries and commercial firms.
1992 Land Remote-Sensing Policy Act
This law repealed the Land Remote-Sensing Commercialization Act, as transfer to the private sector of the U.S. government-owned Landsat proved problematic. The new law gave the Department of Commerce the power to license and regulate a U.S. commercial remote-sensing industry and to outsource the development of new Landsat components to the private sector.
1994 First GPS Constellation
The first global positioning system constellation becomes operational. It consists of 24 geosynchronous satellites. GPS is a space-based satellite navigation system that provides location and time information in all weather, anywhere on or near the Earth.
1999 Cubesat Design Specification (CDS) and Poly-Picosatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD)
The CubeSat Design Specification (CDS) provides a framework for the design, construction and launch of Cubesats. A CubeSat is a class of miniaturized satellite based around a form factor consisting of 10 cm (3.9 in) cubes. CubeSats have a mass of no more than 2 kg (4.4 Ib) per unit, and often use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components for their electronics and structure. CubeSats are put into orbit by deployers on the International Space Station, or launched as secondary payloads on a launch vehicle.
The Poly-Picosatellite Orbital Deployer (P-POD) is a standard deployment system that can deploy up to three 1U cubesats. The P-POD plays a critical role as the interface between the launch vehicle and CubeSats. The P-POD minimizes potential interactions with the primary payload(s) on a launch vehicle by physically enclosing the Cube Sats and requiring that they be launched in a dormant “off” state.
2000 GPS Full Accuracy Made Available to the Public
2002 Start of the New Space Economy
SpaceX is founded. The company is focused on commercial space transportation.
2003 First 6 Cubesats Launched Into Orbit
The “EELV Secondary Payload Adapter” (ESPA) is an adapter for launching secondary payloads on orbital launch vehicles. The use of ESPA ring technology reduces launch costs for the primary payload and enables secondary payloads with minimal impact to the original mission. The adapter design becomes a “defacto” standard.
2009 Kessler Syndrome Revisited
In 2009 Kessler published modeling results which concluded that the debris environment was already unstable, “such that any attempt to achieve a growth-free small debris environment by eliminating sources of past debris will likely fail because fragments from future collisions will be generated faster than atmospheric drag will remove them”. One implication is that the distribution of debris in orbit could render space activities and the use of satellites in specific orbital ranges difficult for many generations.
2010 NASA Cubesat Launch Initiative (CLI)
NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative, created in 2010, provides CubeSat launch opportunities to educational institutions, nonprofit organizations and NASA Centers.
2010 Launch Price Drops by >50%
2012 SpaceX Accepts Secondary Payloads on Falcon 9
SpaceX will use a SSPS adapter based upon the ESPA.
2012 1,000 Satellites Orbit the Earth
More than a thousand active satellites orbit the Earth.
Source: UCS satellite database
2013 Exponential Growth of Cubesat Launches Begins
This was the first launch of Vega using the Vespa (VEga Secondary Payload Adapter). Vespa allows for multiple payloads and their deployment into different orbits. Vespa can carry a 1000 kg main satellite on top, and either a secondary payload of 600 kg in the internal cone, or several auxiliary payloads totalling 600 kg distributed on a platform.
2015 U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act
The law was designed to encourage commercial spaceflight and innovation by: postponing significant regulatory oversight of private spaceflight companies until 2023; extending the period during which the government indemnifies commercial spaceflight companies for third-party damages beyond the company’s required liability insurance; and granting private companies the right to own resources collected in space, such as materials from asteroid mining.
2017 Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act
The law permits commercial weather satellites and allows NOAA to purchase weather data from commercial weather satellite constellations.
2017 National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act
NASA authorization focused on long-term deep space human exploration, investments in science, technology and aeronautics portfolios, and growing the commercial space sector.
2018 SpaceX Receives FCC Approval for Constellation
2018 First Cubesats Leave Earth Orbit
The Mars Cube One mission consisted of two 6U Cubesats.
Initial customers include: DigitalGlobe, Blacksky, Spire, Capella Space, Open Cosmos, Hawkeye 360.
2019 Swarm Receives FCC Approval for Constellation
- Approved for up to 150 satellites
- Swarm FCC submissions
2019 SpaceX Announces Rideshare Program for Smallsats
$1 million for 200 kg to LEO
This marks the beginning of the end for small launchers.
The Vega Small Spacecraft Mission Service, or SSMS, is intended to provide affordable access to space for small and light satellites. SSMS is a modular dispenser that can accommodate any combination of 1 kg CubeSats up to 500 kg minisatellites, from a main large satellite with smaller companions, to multiple small satellites, or dozens of individual CubeSats.
2020 Microsoft Azure Orbital Announced
53 smallsats launched
2021 Survey Of Small Launch Vehicles
The first survey of small launch vehicles was performed in 2015 and identified twenty vehicles under development. By mid-2021 ten vehicles in this class were operational, 48 were identified under development, and 43 more were potential new entrants. All are inspired by the success of SpaceX and the desire to capitalize on the perceived demand caused by the mega constellations.
2021 Start of the Space Logistics Market
The space logistics market includes, Orbital Transfer Vehicles, Space Tugs, Hosted Payloads, Orbital Hubs, Debris Removal, and Mission Extension Vehicles.
Smallsats benefit from more flexible access to space and last mile logistic capabilities. On orbit services opens new satellite evolution paths away from small satellites: longer lifespan and larger satellites with more capabilities.
2021 Spacex Transporter-1 Mission
- 143 smallsats launched
- $1 million per 200 kg smallsat
2022 Smallsats are the New Normal
Smallsats > 94% of satellites launched in 2021
Launches with smallsats > 54% of all launches in 2021
Smallsats are an accepted way of doing business
168 commercial operators with one or more smallsats in 2021
2022 Start of Industry Progression to “The PC of Smallsat”
Adoption of interface standardization and modularity will drive down cost and time to manufacture satellites of all sizes.
2022 Start of Commercial Space Industry Regulation
“We believe the new space age needs new rules,” FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel said in an Aug. 5 statement. Existing regulations, she added, were generally “designed for a time when going to space was astronomically expensive and limited to the prowess of our political superpowers.”
2022 The Illusion of Smallsat Growth Between 2022 and 2031
Over 18,500 smallsats (<500 kg) are forecast to be launched between 2022 and 2031. However this forecast gives the illusion of a huge growing market when in reality 81% of the smallsats launched during that period will be from a few mega constellations such as Starlink. Furthermore, the smallsat market faces a growing number of challenges e.g., limited market addressability, difficult profitability, oversupply and concentration of the commercial market in a handful of established players.
Statistics Reference: Euroconsult
$275K for 50kg to SSO additional mass at $5.5K/kg
2023E SpaceX Starlink Gen 2 Satellites Launch
At 1200 kg and 7 m long… no longer a smallsat.
2024E SpaceX Starship Starts Commercial Service
$200 per kilogram estimated cost
2025E The Decline of Small Satellites
The following trends are expected to result in an increase of the mass of individual satellites launched: continued decline in launch cost, satellite components standardization driving down time and cost to build, on-orbit servicing, desire for increased/multi capabilities, and the high ongoing cost of maintaining a large LEO smallsat constellation.
2030E ISS Decommissioned
No more cubesat launches from ISS.
2040E The End of LEO Smallsat Communications Constellations
In-Space Assembly and Manufacturing (ISAM) will allow the assembly of large structures in space, including large antenna structures which can redefine the satellite communications market.
Satellite antenna size and the data throughput achievable in a satellite communications channel are directly related, but the benefits from an increased aperture size can also be used to enable access to smaller ground antennas or to improve QoS, as well as increase data throughput. As well as gain, increasing satellite antenna size also enables increased spatial discrimination, enabling greater frequency reuse across a given service area. With the satellite industry’s shift from a broadcast model to a connectivity-based approach comes increased competition with terrestrial networks, and a corresponding need to increase total system throughput and spectrum utilisation. The result has been greater interest in larger antenna systems for telecommunications missions. While increasing antenna aperture size will always result in a corresponding increase in link performance, if a significant step forward could be made, a tipping point might be reached allowing direct broadband access to hand-held devices from orbit. Such a step change would have a significant impact on the addressable market and range of applications that could be supported by the satcom sector.