What Determines the Development Time of a Satellite?

Source: Lockheed Martin

Factors Influencing Development Times

In general, small, simple satellites can sometimes be developed in as little as 1-2 years, while larger, more complex missions can take 5-10 years or even longer. However, there are many exceptions to these rules, and the timeline for any particular satellite will depend on a complex interplay of many different factors, as described in the following table:

Factor Description
Mission Complexity More complex missions often require more advanced technology, unique instruments, or detailed design work. For instance, a scientific mission to study a distant planet or star would likely require much more time to develop than a simple communication satellite.
Type of Satellite Small, simple satellites like CubeSats can often be designed, built, and launched in a few years or even less, given sufficient resources and expertise. Larger satellites, like those used for weather observation or interplanetary missions, tend to require more time to develop.
Technology If new technology needs to be developed or extensively tested for the mission, this can add significant time to the development process. For example, the James Webb Space Telescope, which was in development for over two decades, required significant new technology to be invented and validated.
Resources A well-funded team with plenty of experience can often develop a satellite more quickly than a smaller or less experienced team. But even well-resourced projects can run into unforeseen challenges that can delay development.
Regulatory Considerations There are also a number of legal and regulatory considerations that can affect the timeline. For example, the team will need to obtain a launch license, and in some cases, the satellite might require specific approvals if it carries certain types of technology or if it’s being launched into certain orbits.
Testing Each component of the satellite, as well as the assembled satellite itself, needs to go through rigorous testing to ensure it can survive the harsh conditions of space and fulfill its mission. This includes vibration testing to simulate the conditions of launch, thermal vacuum testing to simulate the space environment, and various performance testing for the satellite’s instruments and systems.


The following table provides an overview of specific examples of satellites and the approximate time it took for their development. This gives an insight into the varying timeframes different sizes of satellites, ranging from larger scientific instruments such as the Hubble Space Telescope, to smaller, mass-produced Starlink satellites, to compact cubesats.

Satellite Development Time
Hubble Space Telescope The Hubble Space Telescope, one of the most famous and significant scientific instruments ever created, took a substantial amount of time to develop. Conceptual planning for a space telescope began as early as the 1940s, and the Hubble project specifically started in the 1970s. The satellite was finally launched in 1990, so the overall development process was several decades long, although the active building and engineering phase was closer to around 15 years.
James Webb Space Telescope The James Webb Space Telescope, often considered the successor to the Hubble, is another example of a very complex satellite that required a long development time. Conceptual work began in the late 1990s, and the telescope was initially planned to be launched in 2007. However, numerous delays pushed back the launch to 2021, meaning that the satellite’s development took over two decades.
Landsat Satellites Each satellite in the Landsat series, which began in 1972, took several years to develop. For instance, Landsat 8 took about 4 years from the start of its contract in 2008 to its launch in 2013.
Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a NASA satellite designed to study Mars from orbit, took about 4 years to develop, from the project’s start in 2001 to its launch in 2005.
Starlink Satellites These satellites are being mass-produced by SpaceX for their global broadband internet project. The development timeline is a bit harder to pin down because the design has been iteratively updated and improved over time. The project was publicly announced in 2015, and the first prototype satellites were launched in 2018, suggesting a development time of at least a few years.
CubeSats On the smaller end of the scale, CubeSats often have development times measured in months to a few years. For example, the Mars Cube One (MarCO) mission, which sent two CubeSats to Mars, was developed in about 3 years from concept to launch.
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