Small Satellites, Big Impact: Sustainability in the Space Economy


Over the past few years, the satellite industry has seen significant growth, particularly in the small satellite sector. These smaller satellites, known as CubeSats or nanosats, have emerged as important tools for space exploration, communication, and research, thanks to their affordability and versatility. As the global emphasis on sustainability continues to intensify, small satellites are increasingly recognized for their potential to revolutionize space exploration in a more eco-friendly manner.

This article reviews the world of small satellites and their role in promoting sustainability in the space industry.

What Does Sustainability Mean?

Sustainability in the context of the space economy refers to the responsible and ethical use of space resources and technologies, taking into consideration the environmental, social, and economic impacts of space activities.

Space sustainability encompasses a wide range of issues, including managing space debris, minimizing the environmental impact of launches and space operations, protecting the space environment and celestial bodies from contamination, and ensuring the long-term viability of space resources.

In addition to environmental sustainability, social and economic sustainability are also important factors to consider. Space activities should aim to benefit society as a whole, including promoting equity and access to space technologies, while also contributing to economic growth and development.

Overall, sustainability in the space economy involves balancing the benefits of space activities with their potential impacts on the environment, society, and the economy, to ensure a sustainable and responsible use of space resources for future generations.

What are Small Satellites?

Small satellites are a category of spacecraft that are significantly smaller and lighter than traditional satellites. They typically weigh between 1 to 500 kilograms and come in various sizes, such as CubeSats, nanosats, microsats, and minisats. These small satellites have become popular due to their lower costs, shorter development times, and potential for rapid deployment, making them an attractive option for both government and commercial space endeavors.

The Evolution of Small Satellite Technology

The history of small satellite technology is a tale of innovation and adaptation that has revolutionized the space industry. This section reviews the evolution of small satellites, from their early beginnings to the cutting-edge technology we see today.

Early Beginnings (1960s-1980s)

The concept of small satellites can be traced back to the 1960s, with the launch of amateur radio satellites known as OSCAR (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio). These early small satellites were primarily focused on providing communication services and were built using off-the-shelf components. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, various countries, including the Soviet Union and the United States, continued to experiment with small satellites for scientific research and technology demonstration purposes.

Birth of CubeSats (1999)

The CubeSat concept was introduced in 1999 by professors Jordi Puig-Suari of California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) and Bob Twiggs of Stanford University. Their goal was to create a standardized, low-cost platform that could be used for educational and research purposes. CubeSats, typically measuring 10x10x10 centimeters and weighing around 1 kilogram, quickly gained popularity due to their modular design and affordability.

Commercial Adoption and Proliferation (2000s-2010s)

The early 2000s saw the first wave of commercial adoption of small satellite technology. Companies such as Planet Labs and Spire Global started using small satellites to provide Earth imaging and weather data services. Governments and space agencies also took notice, and programs like NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) were established to promote the development and launch of small satellites for various purposes.

Advancements in Technology and Capabilities (2010s-Present)

Recent years have seen significant advancements in small satellite technology, including miniaturized components, advanced propulsion systems, and energy-efficient designs. These developments have allowed small satellites to perform tasks that were once reserved for larger satellites, such as high-resolution Earth imaging, scientific research, and even interplanetary missions.

One of the most notable trends in small satellite technology is the development of satellite constellations, which consist of multiple satellites working together to provide global coverage. Companies like SpaceX and OneWeb have been launching large-scale constellations of small satellites to provide internet services to underserved areas around the world. These constellations, also known as mega-constellations, present new opportunities for sustainable space exploration but also raise concerns about space traffic management and debris.

For more information, a very detailed timeline of the evolution of the small satellite market is provided in this article A Timeline of the Smallsat Market – Past, Present, and Future.

Sustainable Space Exploration with Small Satellites

Lower Resource Consumption

Small satellites require fewer materials and energy to build, launch, and operate compared to their larger counterparts. This reduces the overall environmental impact of satellite production, contributing to more sustainable space exploration. Additionally, the miniaturization of satellite technology has led to improved energy efficiency, resulting in lower power consumption during operation.


The affordability of small satellites has opened up the space industry to a wider range of players, including startups, universities, and developing nations. With the availability of more budget-friendly satellites, space exploration can become a more accessible and widespread endeavor. This democratization of space technology can lead to increased innovation and collaboration, driving the development of more sustainable practices and solutions.

Rideshare Opportunities

The compact size of small satellites enables them to be launched as secondary payloads on rockets carrying larger spacecraft. This practice, known as ridesharing, allows for more efficient use of launch vehicles and reduces the environmental impact of multiple rocket launches. As a result, ridesharing contributes to a more sustainable approach to space exploration.

Orbital Debris Mitigation

With the growing number of satellites in Earth’s orbit, space debris has become a significant concern. Small satellites can help mitigate this issue by incorporating end-of-life disposal mechanisms, such as deorbiting devices or drag sails, which allow for controlled re-entry and burn-up in the Earth’s atmosphere. These measures help to minimize the risk of space debris and ensure a more sustainable space environment.

Rapid Technological Advancements

The shorter development cycles and lower costs associated with small satellites encourage more frequent technology updates and improvements. As a result, the small satellite sector is often at the forefront of developing innovative, sustainable technologies, such as advanced propulsion systems, energy-efficient components, and eco-friendly manufacturing processes.

Examples of Small Satellites and Sustainability

Planet Labs’ Dove Satellites

Planet Labs, a private Earth-imaging company, utilizes a fleet of small satellites called Doves to capture high-resolution imagery of Earth. The Dove satellites, which are CubeSats, significantly reduce the environmental impact of space exploration due to their small size and low power consumption. Additionally, Planet Labs has demonstrated responsible space practices by incorporating deorbiting systems in their satellites, mitigating the risk of space debris.

NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI)

NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) promotes the development and launch of small satellites for scientific research and technology demonstrations. By providing cost-effective access to space, CSLI enables educational institutions, non-profit organizations, and other government agencies to contribute to sustainable space exploration. The program has facilitated numerous CubeSat missions, including the RainCube satellite, which aims to improve precipitation measurements using a miniaturized radar system.

The European Space Agency’s GomX-4B Satellite

The GomX-4B, developed by the European Space Agency (ESA), is a nanosatellite that has successfully demonstrated the use of an environmentally friendly propulsion system called an electric propulsion system. This technology enables satellites to maintain their orbits using less fuel than traditional chemical propulsion systems, resulting in reduced space debris and a more sustainable space environment.

A More Sustainable and Cost-Effective Alternative to Traditional Satellite Technology

Small satellites are revolutionizing the way we approach space exploration by offering a more sustainable and cost-effective alternative to traditional satellite technology. With reduced resource consumption, increased access to space, and a focus on environmental stewardship, small satellites are poised to play a vital role in promoting sustainability within the space industry.

As the small satellite sector continues to evolve, we can expect to see even more advancements in technology and capabilities, driving further innovation and fostering sustainable space practices. The journey of small satellite technology has shown that size does not necessarily limit potential, and the future holds immense possibilities for these tiny spacecraft.