There is growing interest in the national and commercial use of small, cheap, and easy to develop satellites. These small satellites have been the main driver of a 40 percent increase in satellites in orbit in the last four years, with increasing application in farming, remote sensing, and scientific missions. The ability to innovatively use these affordable satellites has been hindered, however, by the difficulty in getting them into orbit.
Often, small satellites have to wait for a larger launch and piggyback a ride—stuck into the spare space available on a massive rocket. This means the deployment, testing, and final commercial uses of such satellites is often delayed. Some small satellites can wait years for a spot on a launch.
There are growing efforts to address this capability gap. Jim Cantrell, a SpaceX alum, has created a new company that will focus on small launch vehicles. If a vehicle can be successfully developed for more frequent and reliable small-end launches, access to space could dramatically open. Reducing costs of the satellites themselves is only one part the equation, and cheaper and more timely opportunities to get those satellites into space will allow deeper innovation. Of course, the ability to get launch costs down has been driven by commercialized investment in space assets across the board, and growing international competition. New Zealand, for example, is also pushing low-cost small rocket launches.
Increased access to space for small, affordable satellites will bring with it challenges for the private space sector. The rise of small satellites, and a type known as cubesats in particular, has increased worries about debris and spectrum management. Some of this is more an issue of perception than actual risk, but innovation in satellite technology and use will only be viable if it does not spark heavy-handed regulations. Users of new satellite technologies and cubesats should be aware of international disposal guidelines. Engaging and understanding other stakeholders’ concerns could preempt calls for more regulation—regulation that could kill off nascent innovation.
At the same time, more frequent small-end space launches could help keep cubesats in line with disposal best practices. Having to rely on larger launches often mean that cubesat developers have to place their satellites higher than the recommended orbit or miss their opportunity to launch. These cubesats then stay in orbit longer than the 25-year lifetime rule (after which they are supposed to reenter the atmosphere and burn up) and could cause problems in the future. Launch vehicles specifically focused on cubesats would help reduce the number of cubesats staying in orbit for too long.
Small, affordable launch capabilities will help further space commercialization. As this trend develops, government and businesses will have to work together to foster responsible innovation.