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Transporter-2 launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 launched 88 small satellites last week, but rideshare missions like this should be complemented by other means to easily and affordably get smallsats into orbit. (credit: SpaceX)

The nanosatellite gold rush demands new routes to space


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More than six decades since the launch of Sputnik 1, the first satellite in history, nanosatellites have opened up a new era in private space innovation. They’ve created a wealth of new opportunities for upstart satellite developers, and new challenges to solve for those who seek to help them make their impact.

The high cost and inherent inefficiencies of reaching space—and the inability to recover a satellite for analysis once it’s actually placed in orbit—are barriers to the development and progression of these technologies.

Indeed, it’s a renaissance that has been brewing for quite some time, thanks to a new crop of aerospace entrepreneurs and commercial companies who’ve emerged in the past decade to challenge the industry’s status quo and spur a significant technological and philosophical shift. Increased access to space was the first step, and a downstream product of that has been the development of smaller, more diverse, and more cost-effective satellites that are beginning to revolutionize, and even democratize, how people share knowledge and information.

At the highest level, though, what this renaissance has instigated is an agile aerospace movement: where innovation is highly reliant on developers’ ability to extensively iterate their designs and technologies, including spacecraft. The reality is that this type of testing has been largely confined to the ground until now. The high cost and inherent inefficiencies of reaching space—and the inability to recover a satellite for analysis once it’s actually placed in orbit—are barriers to the development and progression of these technologies, especially from the upstart labs, universities, and government programs that are increasingly taking a leading role in their development.

Given the increased orbital launch capacity that ushered in the private space era and the fact that iteration has perhaps never been more critical for space entrepreneurs to ensure their designs are economically and environmentally feasible, new and cost-effective routes to space are desperately needed. Here are three major reasons why.

Increasing access to foundational technology

Just as the Internet was the last generation’s foundational technology, space has a chance to be this generation’s, but only if we can make it as broadly viable and accessible as the Internet was. As the platform on which every subsequent technological advancement will be built, open access to space is vital for future innovation and technological advancements across many industries, the most exciting of which don’t even exist yet.

Access to low-cost and frequent launches will enable institutions to rapidly iterate on their technology before they’re deployed into orbit.

In fact, the foundation of the US Space Force in 2019 is perhaps perfect evidence of just how high-stakes access to space is today, with its launch demonstrating the value the Department of Defense is placing on real-time satellite data to protect American troops and infrastructure. Meanwhile, consumers’ heightened expectations for data on-demand are forcing companies to push the boundaries of the experiences they deliver. Sectors like communications, imaging, cloud services, and meteorology have all grown even more reliant on space exploration and advancements in satellite technologies (more specifically, constellations of nanosatellites) as a result.

Notably, the transition to nanosats, and the fact that they’re being developed in more places by more people, has played a substantial role in advancements in all of the above. Thus far, this shift has gone hand-in-hand with the evolution of the launch industry, and that trend must continue. Demands for new routes to space—specifically, the testing environment of suborbital space—have appeared, alongside increased calls for orbital satellites that have a greater need for testing, whether that's with materials, subsystems, or individual nanosats before they’re deployed in a constellation.

Calling an “Uber” to deliver small payloads to space

These satellites need an Uber to space and back again, and currently, one-way trains and large buses are the only things available. While SpaceX, Blue Origin, and the United Launch Alliance have revolutionized space transportation, nano-sized payloads have largely been left at the train station, unless they’re traveling on standby or renting out the whole building. And with more small satellites coming from more places at more times, there’s a need to be able to carry just a handful of small payloads to space—and, in early stages of development, back for analysis and adjustment—quickly.

Why? For one, access to low-cost and frequent launches will enable institutions to rapidly iterate on their technology before they’re deployed into orbit. Think of all the startups, research universities, privately-funded labs, and underfunded government programs whose own nanosat concepts and designs have the potential to transform future science and experimental payloads. They all stand to benefit significantly from this type of cost-effective access to space, helping them to ensure that their end products are financially viable through recovery and regular analysis.

It also enables them to be more responsible, in that this approach helps mitigate the troubling space trash problem made worse by the industry’s “fly it and pray it works” strategy.

The industry must lower its barriers to space by decreasing launch costs and making booking a payload on a rocket as simple as requesting an Uber.

This is an issue that has become so severe that a recent report from the European Space Agency found that while the industry has become aware of the problem and has even taken steps in recent years to alleviate it, it hasn’t been enough to keep up with the sheer scale of the space junk. As a result, as more and more defunct or defective objects populate near-Earth space, the risk grows of collisions that produce even more space junk. Broadly increasing access to space at all levels can help organizations ensure that their satellites are removed from orbit when they’re no longer active.

Harnessing public interest to increase access to space

Public interest in space is the highest it’s ever been: even higher than during the space race of the 1960s. And much of this interest has come as a result of space going private over the last decade. The natural next step now is to lean into the nanosatellite gold rush with new ideas, new technologies, and new launch services to cater to them. If we get it right, we’ll be able to better leverage, diversify, and monetize its tremendous potential. Low-cost, frequent, and repeated access to space is imperative to do this.

After all, with $216 billion set to be spent on developing satellites over the next decade (much of which will be attempting to bring tens of thousands of new nanosat technologies to market), the challenge now is to get to space quickly and reliably, and get there and back enough times to get it right. The industry must lower its barriers to space by decreasing launch costs and making booking a payload on a rocket as simple as requesting an Uber.

Otherwise, we stand only to limit our search for the next generational product idea, limiting the pool of innovation to highly funded and well-backed institutions with ample access to resources. So, in a way, it’s also about democratizing innovation: enabling nanosat developers of all shapes and sizes and with diverse goals to more readily access and iterate their technologies.


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