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 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.

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.

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

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

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.



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The Aerospace Corporation

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