THE SMALL SATELLITE REVOLUTION

Small Satellite Challenges and Gaps

What does the future hold for small satellites, and what technological hurdles need to be overcome to get there?

A payload manager works with the engineering development unit to explore the potential of modular design.

The rapid escalation of the production and launch of small satellites has revolutionized space. Aerospace has been at the forefront of CubeSat technology and the miniaturization of satellites since before the CubeSat standard was established — flying the world’s first containerized satellite over 20 years ago.

Leveraging the remarkable work of our labs to set the standard for reliability and technology development within the small satellite community, our expertise has enabled the development of novel space architectures that include a mix of high-value assets, partnerships with industry to advance CubeSat capabilities and work with academia to advance new, transformational technologies.

The DiskSat, a new form factor for small satellites, has the containerization advantages of a CubeSat with a large surface area for antennas and other instruments.

We spoke with Catherine Venturini, Principal Engineer, Science and Technology Development, about what the future holds for small satellites.

What are some of the biggest advancements in CubeSat / SmallSat technology in the past five years?

It is amazing to see what has been achieved so far on these platforms. Technology advancements have allowed for the miniaturization of payloads and sensors to fit into small satellite platforms while still providing significant mission capability. The missions now being flown are producing high-quality scientific results, providing support for operational missions, or opening up new business opportunities in space.

The Slingshot 1 modular assembly in the lab.

The proliferation of LEO constellations has produced a lot of advancements in the industry — most notably in manufacturing and production. Multiple companies are running assembly lines for high-volume small satellite production or are scaling up production to support these constellations.

What challenges do these advancements present?

Most of the challenges will be in the areas of space sustainability, space safety, cyber security, supply chain, and space traffic management. These are the key areas the community needs to invest in and advance for the benefit of all who want to operate in space. Navigating policy and licensing continues to be a struggle for many developers.

What is the most important thing happening at Aerospace with small satellite technologies, and why?

Aerospace is always looking at those future hard problems and advancing capabilities. A couple of notable efforts are the Slingshot 1 mission and DiskSat.

Slingshot 1 launched in June 2022 aboard the Virgin Orbit Straight Up mission.

Slingshot is using modularity, standard interfaces, open architectures, and autonomous technologies, leveraging the potential of open standards and non-proprietary interfaces to simplify and expedite payload development and integration. These technologies could usher in a new era of increased space system agility, resilience, and extended spacecraft lifespans by allowing for onboard components to be more efficiently upgraded or replaced as needed.

DiskSat will be part of a NASA demo mission in 2024.

DiskSat is a new satellite form factor that will be part of a NASA demo mission in 2024. The concept takes an alternate approach to satellite containerization, providing the benefits — standardized launch interface, low launch costs, and simple mechanical design — with large surface areas that can be dedicated to large antennas or instruments that need exposure to space, and high power.

Aerospace has been doing a lot of development in low SWAP optical communications, and rendezvous and proximity operations. We also continue to be thought leaders in space safety, space policy, cyber security and involvement with the Space ISAC, and supply chain work.

Learn more about our technologies being showcased at the Small Satellite Conference in Logan, UT, August 6–11, 2022.

How important is small satellite technology in the larger space enterprise? Is that role expanding?

Small satellite technology is prevalent across academia, government, and industry so it’s very important to the larger space enterprise. U.S. Government agencies are now leveraging commercial data and systems for current and future capabilities. They are also building and flying their own small satellites. We will only see more of this in the future with hybrid architectures of different types of satellites. At some point, we may not need to distinguish “small” satellites as they will become part of the satellite norm.

What does the future hold for small satellites? What are some of the most promising technologies being implemented?

There is a lot of excitement with small satellites in higher orbits, cislunar, and even interplanetary space. The Capstone mission to test an elliptical lunar orbit as a pathfinder for NASA’s Gateway lunar outpost is a great example. I’m also looking forward to seeing the launch of the small satellites flying on Artemis 1.

CAPSTONE spacecraft in NASA’s digital model of the solar system
Preview of the CAPSTONE spacecraft in the Eyes orrery, a digital model of the solar system. Credit: NASA

In the future, small satellites will play a role In-Space Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing as that ecosystem matures. From a launch perspective, orbital maneuvering vehicles and propulsive ESPA are an interesting trend; these devices can help get satellites where they need to go so the spacecraft doesn’t need to carry extra propellent onboard.

Some of the most promising technologies I see are in the areas of additive manufacturing, electric propulsion, solar sails, laser communications, robotics, and autonomous systems.

What are some of the biggest gaps in SmallSat development? What needs to be addressed?

As we look to higher performance systems that can still fit into the smaller size satellite platforms, there are definite technical considerations that will need to be addressed. As interest grows to fly missions to GEO, the moon, and deep space, this will require advancements in on-orbit processing, autonomy, power, thermal management, and capable communications to handle larger data sets. Reliable and robust propulsion technology for maneuverability is also a necessity.

Technologies that promote better cooperation between satellites and enhancements in guidance, navigation, and control systems are especially needed — for formation flying, and inspection or servicing type missions. We also need to look at technology developments in cyber security to protect our space systems, and to develop means for minimizing space debris. Finally, understanding how the overall system can benefit from small satellite standards and determining the best approach for standards implementation will benefit the entire SmallSat community.

Ms. Catherine Venturini is a principal engineer/scientist at The Aerospace Corporation. Her areas of expertise include strategic planning and technology development, space mission architectures, and CubeSat/SmallSat missions and technologies.

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The Aerospace Corporation

The Aerospace Corporation

We operate the only federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) committed exclusively to the space enterprise.