The article assesses the developments in the sphere of satellites, reveals the growing importance of small satellites in future warfare, and recommends possible courses of action for small countries seeking to strengthen national security.
Small satellites – what are they?
The very first satellites launched into orbit were small, such as “Sputnik-1” (USSR), which was 58 cm in diameter and weighed 83 kg., and “Vanguard-1” (US) was 16 cm in diameter and weighed only 1.6 kg. The size of the first satellites was determined by the technical capacity of the available rocket carriers and the desire to receive a radio signal from space, so they were not very complicated. Over time, systems improved, and user needs and expectations changed, so satellites grew and reached unprecedented sizes. Most of the large satellites were launched during the Cold War e.g. reconnaissance satellite “Hexagon” (US) (Fig. 1) whose length was 16.2 m and mass was over 13 t.
Figure 1. US reconnaissance satellite “Hexagon” (source: https://www.space.com/12996-secret-spy-satellites-declassified-nro.html)
Satellites are classified according to many parameters, the most popular of which is the classification according to the mass they have, i.e. femto (1-100 g), pico (0.1-1 kg), nano (1-10 kg), micro (10-100 kg), mini (100-1000 kg), and large satellites whose mass starts from 1000 kg. Small satellites are that whose mass does not exceed 500 kg.
The beginning of the development of small satellites was greatly stimulated, starting in 1980, by the international community of radio satellite amateurs and universities, who were looking for ways to develop cost-effective space systems performing various functions with minimal financial and technical resources. As a pioneer in the field of small satellites, the University of Surrey can be mentioned for its “UoSat program”, which later influenced the creation of “Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd”, the first small satellite manufacturer. This significant breakthrough facilitated an increase of small satellites available in orbit, e.g. from 2012 to 2017 increased from 70 to 380. Of the 300 small satellites put into orbit in 2017 about 80% were satellites of the micro-nano class. Meanwhile, even 94% of the number of satellites launched in 2020 consisted of small satellites.
Small satellites seem to be conquering space at an extraordinary rate today. After examining the companies’ plans and issuing permits, it can be seen that at least 1,800 small satellites will be launched annually in the future. Materials and technologies freely available on the market are used for producing these spacecraft, allowing the discovery of new and cheaper ways of performing significant observation missions. Thanks to technological innovations, continuous miniaturization of key components, and advances in mechanical systems, batteries, and sensors, small satellites can provide high-quality data and services in areas such as remote sensing; data transmission, positioning, and timing, navigation, approach operations. The standardized implementation of hardware and software components has also greatly boosted the optimization of the production, integration, and testing of satellites and their subsystems, which is especially important for the launch of satellite clusters.
Advantages of small satellites
It would be naive to expect that a single small satellite could be superior to a large satellite, but small satellites can still perform many relevant functions. First of all, small satellites are focused on performing a single function than large satellites, which may contain many complex sensors or diverse functionalities. Small satellites are launched in clusters, so the area covered by them can be equal to that of a large satellite. The performance of a single function leads to a smaller size of the satellite while at the same time influencing its complexity, which allows for faster production. A large satellite takes an average of 4 to 5 years to design and build, while small satellites can be built in a significantly shorter time frame, sometimes even months. The shorter development time of small satellites also allows for the renewal of low earth orbit (LEO) satellites, whose on-orbit life cycle is significantly shorter (1-5 years) than that of large satellites. Scientists are currently still experimenting with new solutions to increase the duration of small satellites in space by up to 7 years, such as using microwave electrothermal launchers. Engine technologies have also been developed for small satellites to change their orbits and take the correct position in the cluster. Second of all, the constant updating of small satellites allows us to expect that the newly launched satellites will have the most recent and maximally improved technologies installed. Third, small satellites’ relative simplicity and short development time generally result in lower costs. While traditional large satellites typically cost hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars, small satellites can be built for tens of millions or even less. For example, the creation and launch of the “Maxar” company‘s “WorldView-4” satellite (Fig. 2) weighting 2500 kg would cost USD 850 million, while the price of the “OneWeb” company’s small satellite (Fig. 3) together with its launch services is estimated at over USD 1 million.
Figure 2. Maxar’s “WorldView-4” satellite (source: https://www.eoportal.org/satellite-missions/worldview-4#mission-status)
Figure 3. The small satellites of the “OneWeb” company are being prepared for flight (source: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/06/science/oneweb-launch.html)
Experts estimate that small satellites’ average production and launch costs are up to 90% lower than those of large satellites. Fourth, it would be possible to create clusters of small satellites or a group of linked satellites that, e.g. have different sensors fly over the same point on the ground simultaneously, allowing different types of data to be combined. In this way, several small satellites would provide identical or even more detailed information than those large satellites. Fifthly, the small satellites that are launched frequently are part of a cluster/system that consists of over a hundred small satellites in total, which allows for an increase in the revisit frequency, e.g. the company “Planet” with over 150 satellites in LEO can collect information from any place on earth at least five times a day (Fig. 4). Meanwhile, the “SpaceX” company, which plans to launch a total of up to 12,000 and later a total of up to 42,000 “Starlink” satellites (Fig. 5), will be able to ensure constant and uninterrupted internet access and data transmission anywhere on Earth.
Figure 4. Planet’s small satellite “Pelikan” (source: https://www.planet.com/pulse/our-next-generation-satellite-constellation-pelican-is-expected-to-deliver-very-high-resolution-and-rapid-revist-capabilities/)
Figure 5. Starlink satellite cluster (source: https://www.space.com/elon-musk-says-spacex-starlink-active-ukraine)
Currently, the prices of launching satellites into orbit have significantly decreased, so it can be expected that the interest in small satellites will not decrease in the future. LEO launches prices per 1 kg. ranging from USD 5-18 thousand, depending on orbit and waiting time. The “Falcon 9” launch vehicle of the “SpaceX” company can launch the cargo cheapest (Figure 6). Also, “SpaceX” created the “Falcon Heavy” carrier, which, when fully loaded (up to 60 tons) would cost USD 2,500 per kilogram. Next to “SpaceX”, several other companies are also trying to claim a share of the mentioned market. “Blue Origin” is developing a new heavy rocket, the “New Glenn”, with two- and three-stage variants. “United Launch Alliance” is developing the “Vulcan” launch vehicle. Individual solutions are also offered on the market for launching small satellites: the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) project spacecraft “XS-1” (Fig. 7), which can achieve 10 flights in a 10-day period, companies “Virgin Orbit” and “Stratolaunch” air launch systems, and the “Rocket Lab Electron” and “Firefly Aerospace Alpha 2.0” test rockets.
Figure 6. 60 “Starlink” satellites are placed on the front of the “Falcon 9” rocket (source: https://spaceflightnow.com/2022/02/20/next-spacex-launch-to-deploy-fewer-starlink-satellites-into-higher-orbit/)
Figure 7. “Boeing” will develop the “Phantom Express” carrier based on the winning DARPA competition (source: https://spacenews.com/darpa-selects-boeing-for-spaceplane-project/)
“SpinLaunch” is currently testing an alternative method of launching up to 200 kg mass satellites – using a suborbital mass accelerator. The accelerator spins the payload up to 10000 g and launches it through the launch tube into space. When the rocket reaches the required height, its outer casing falls, and then the engines of the first and second stage are activated, which deliver the cargo to the desired orbit. The 33 m diameter accelerator is currently being tested (Fig. 8), with all tests being completed by 2026. Following the tests, the 100 m diameter accelerator will be built to ensure the launch of small satellites into the required orbits. This method is expected to reduce the cost of launching cargo into space up to 10 times.
Figure 8. “SpinLaunch” launcher being built (source: https://universemagazine.com/en/spinlaunch-space-gun-will-help-nasa-to-launch-cheap-rockets/)
It is likely that the current possibilities of electronic miniaturization, the launch of small satellites into space, the constant decrease in costs, and, at the same time, the possibility for small states to have independent global monitoring systems that cover the whole world allow us to expect that small satellites will be even more popular.
Trends in the civil sector
In many countries, commercial companies offering optical observation services from space have been founded, which are precisely based on the currently popular small satellites. Perhaps the most famous is the “Planet” company. “Planet” has developed and launched more than 450 satellites. Currently, two clusters of this company are functioning in orbit: 150 satellites “Dove” and 21 satellites “SkySat” (resolution 1 px. – 50 cm.). Both types of satellites have the ability to manoeuvre in space, so they can be directed in the desired direction. The company “Satellogic” currently has 26 satellites in orbit (1 px. – 70 cm.), and by 2025 is planning over 300 satellites intending to ensure a weekly update of the global map. For the sake of interest, it should be mentioned that the Albanian government has signed a three-year EUR 6.2 million contract with “Satellogic” to launch and maintain two satellites. “Albania-1” and “Albania-2” (Fig. 9) will ensure the transmission and processing of images, which will then be evaluated by environmental protection, border, and security services.
Figure 9. Small satellites “Albania-1” and “Albania-2” (source: https://politiko.al/english/e-tjera/firmoset-kontrata-prej-6-mln-per-satelitet-albania-1-e-2-rama-do-monitor-i467915)
Another US company “BlackSky Global”, which provides surveillance services enabled by optical and synthetic aperture radar technology, has launched 12 small satellites (1 px. – 30 cm.) into orbit and has signed a contract with the US National Reconnaissance Office for USD 1 billion for a period of 10 years (Fig. 10). The Chinese company “Chang Guang Satellite Technology Co. Ltd.” currently operates the “Jilin-1” cluster of 46 satellites (1 px. – 75 cm.), which it plans to expand to 138 satellites.
Figure 10. A demo of “BlackSky Global’s” data output (source: https://www.eoportal.org/satellite-missions/blacksky-constellation#about-blacksky-technology-inc)
Meanwhile, other companies manufacture and operate remote sensing satellites with different types of sensors. For example, e.g. the company “Spire” manages 110 different types of satellites that collect not only radio frequency data but also allow monitoring of weather, sea traffic, and aviation activities. Another company, “Capella Space”, uses synthetic aperture radar technology to monitor the earth in any weather, day and night (Fig. 11). The company launched the first 7 satellites from a planned cluster of 36 satellites.
Figure 11. Images from Ukraine obtained by “Capella Space” using synthetic aperture radar technology (source: https://news.satnews.com/2022/02/28/capella-space-publishes-sar-imagery-of-the-ukraine-russia-crisis/)
The company “HawkEye 360” (Fig. 12) has three types of clusters of small satellites deployed, that scan radio frequencies and asses information about the spectral environment and radiation locations. The company plans to launch up to 80 satellites of this type in total.
With the significant increase in the amount of data exchanged in space, the need for the emergence of platforms that enable this also increases. There are companies that have set themselves the goal of providing Internet connection in those parts of the world where terrestrial networks are not developed. “SpaceX’s” “Starlink” satellite cluster is the most developed in the world, with nearly 3,000 satellites launched so far, which can provide data transmission speeds of 50-200 Mb/s in different parts of the world. The “Starlink” cluster is planned to have 12,000 satellites in its final phase. Another international company, “OneWeb”, which is partly owned by the UK government, has almost 400 satellites in orbit and plans to increase the number to 648 by 2023. The “Kuiper project”, overseen by “Amazon”, plans to launch as many as 3,236 satellites by 2022. which would provide high-speed, low-latency broadband services at an affordable price anywhere in the world.
Figure 12. “HawkEye 360” small satellites detected GPS interference in Ukraine (source: https://spacenews.com/hawkeye-360-gps-ukr/)
China-based companies “Guodian Gaoke” (Fig. 13) and “Commsat Tech Dev Co” are also active in this market. The first company will launch 38 satellites into space by the end of this year, and the second will deliver 8 satellites.
Figure 13. Guodian Gaoke company’s small satellite (source: https://www.newspace.im/constellations/guoadian-gaoke)
Over the past decade, many new satellite companies have emerged, but almost all of them are in the early stages of investment and development. Notably, no commercial small satellite cluster company has yet proven to be commercially viable without government support. Many experts are hesitant to assess when “SpaceX”, the company that makes the “Starlink” communications satellites, will establish a market share that will allow it to maintain its manufacturing, launch, space and ground infrastructure, and support operations. Regardless of these circumstances, investors believe that the capacity of small satellites will increase, the technology will continue to develop, and companies will be able to take a sufficient share of the market. Companies manufacturing small satellites for remote sensing, communications, on-orbit servicing, and debris reduction are expected to dominate the space ecosystem in the coming decades.
Potential for small satellites to be used by the military and projects under development
There are noticeable trends in the US defence sector that, even though the US defence sector organizations have over 150 satellites that are capable of conducting optical and electronic reconnaissance, ensuring communication and navigation, weather forecasting, and early warning of ballistic missile launches, they still cover only 20% of their needs. The necessary remaining services are procured from the commercial sector, which is usually provided by small satellites. Noticing this trend, the US Department of Defense and the US intelligence community are investing more and more in small commercial satellites and their clusters.
Clusters of small satellites provide the required revisit frequency, which gives military decision-makers the advantage of knowing the near-real situation on the battlefield. The US military is currently testing this conceptual idea through the “Convergence” experimental project, where the capabilities of commercial and government-operated satellites have been used to photograph the battlefield and rapidly exchange information with the help of communications satellites. In addition, the latest data synthesis and artificial intelligence capabilities were used for data processing, which made it possible to shorten the decision-making speed from 20 minutes to 20 seconds (i.e., from target identification to firing a shot).
Clusters of small satellites provide another important advantage – resistance to kinetic attacks (e.g. against the Russian-made “Nudol” missile). Large satellites are seen as easy targets, while the destruction of one or more small satellites would not significantly affect the operation of the entire cluster or its functionality, so the adversary may decide not to launch this type of attack at all. Of course, clusters, like large individual satellites, can be vulnerable to ongoing cyber-attacks or could be destroyed by nuclear explosions in space. According to the latest research, small satellites are more resistant to cyber-attacks than large ones.
Due to the very short production time and cost of small satellites, in the event of a conflict, it is possible to quickly replace satellites in orbit, launch new ones for specific tasks, restore damaged ones, or increase the number of them in a certain orbit to increase the observation time.
DARPA runs the “BlackJack” program, which aims to encourage the development of small satellites in LEO related to US national security. One of the more exciting projects financed by the program – the production and launch into LEO of small satellites designed to demonstrate data exchange capabilities using lasers – the project took only 9 months from approval to test in space. Laser communication systems allow the safe transmission of large amounts of information (1 Gb/s) that cannot be affected by external interference or data interception, as with radio communication.
In line with plans to integrate small satellites into a common surveillance system, the US Department of Defense plans to expand data processing capabilities to include advanced analytics, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. For that purpose, contracts were concluded with “Ball Aerospace” and “Microsoft” companies in order to create solutions that allow the processing of large amounts of data generated by various types of sensors in clusters of small satellites.
As governments in the future will increasingly use small satellites operated by private companies to provide services to other commercial or government actors around the world, this will make it more difficult for adversary forces to make the decision to destroy several small satellites in a crisis situation knowing that this action can be met with a direct or indirect reaction from other states.
Small satellites can also be used as non-standard weapons in space. Satellites must reach a minimum speed of 25,000 km/h to maintain LEO orbit, so even a small object flying at that speed can damage or even destroy the satellite if they “accidentally” collide.
The potential of small states in the market for small satellites: a Lithuanian case study
Of course, many small states have their own research and production potential, some of which specialize in this particular market. In this article, we will review only the case of Lithuania because the author is from Lithuania.
It should be mentioned that Lithuania has set an ambitious strategic goal – to aim for the Lithuanian space sector to create about 1 per cent of the country’s GDP. Currently, the support concept of the Lithuanian space sector is being developed, and the cooperation in the sector is being matured – a recently created space technology cluster, in which, in addition to the “Visoriai Information Technology Park”, the companies registered in Lithuania “NanoAvionics”, “Elsis Pro”, “Geomatrix” and “Blackswan Space” participate.
Figure 14. The small satellite is being assembled at NanoAvionics (source: https://nanoavionics.com/)
“NanoAvionics”, which produces small satellites (up to 220 kg) (Fig. 14) and their subsystems, manages satellites and ground stations, and organizes services for launching satellites into the required orbits, is probably the most widely known in the world. The company, which started operations in Vilnius, currently has branches in Kaunas, the US, and the UK and is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of small satellites. Starting this year, “NanoAvionics” is owned by “Kongsberg Defense & Aerospace”, a Norwegian technology company. Since its inception, “NanoAvionics” has completed more than 120 small satellite missions and other related projects. The Vilnius-based division is the company’s main strategic, production, research, and satellite management centre, providing small satellites and mission management services to NASA, the European Space Agency, Thales Alenia Space, and other organizations around the world, including those related to in the creation of clusters of satellites of various configurations.
The “Elsis Pro” company develops data exchange solutions, and according to the European Space Agency contract, it will develop a data exchange platform on the “Galaxy” nanosatellite cluster. The “Geomatrix” company provides solutions for satellite data processing. Startup “Blackswan Space” specializes in developing autonomous technologies for satellites, while startup “Astrolight” develops wireless laser communication technologies for satellites and drones (Fig. 15).
Figure 15. Work at the “Astrolight” research laboratory (source: https://astrolightspace.com/updates/ )
In terms of the potential of scientific institutions, the most outstanding could be “Vilnius Tech”, whose scientists specialize in the development and research of precision mechanical drives, miniature piezo drives required for the control of satellite mechanisms and optical instruments, and in the development of adaptive antenna technologies.
Options for small states while using small satellites to increase national security
The war in Ukraine has clearly shown the importance of surveillance tools in space is evident and having said tools gives a very big advantage. Data on the deployment of troops, equipment, and weapons, as well as approach routes, were obtained from both state-run and privately owned satellites.
According to current trends and the level of technology development, it is clear that small satellites will become popular, the cost of their production and launching into space will decrease, the technical characteristics of satellites will improve, and they will be able to stay in orbit for a longer period of time. At the same time, there will be an increase in the number of companies that will invest in this niche by creating clusters of satellites designed to perform certain functions. Many companies will also offer users data processing and other services.
For a small state, it is important to properly assess the amount of information required for national security and ensure that the requested and received information is available to a wider range of users. Centralization of information retrieval and order would be required to avoid duplication. As the security situation changes, so should the periodicity of obtaining and updating information.
It is necessary to perform an analysis in order to assess what type of sensors would be the most effective, what would be the optimal number of small satellites, their orbits, and other important parameters. It can be assumed that in the case of a small state, the solution would be: a) to have several state-owned satellites (e.g. the case of Albania) and, b) in case of need, to be ready to order the data of the required areas from foreign companies or other states. In this way, the state institutions would constantly and periodically receive data on the areas of interest to the security services in the state and outside of it. They could ensure almost continuous monitoring and evaluation of the said areas if necessary. Cost reduction in implementing the first step would be possible by implementing this idea with neighbouring countries.
Also, it would be appropriate to evaluate other possible alternatives to ensure the monitoring of the areas of interest from the space. It could be joining the already running programs of neighbouring countries, but in this case, it should be ensured that the necessary resources are always available.
In order to achieve the most optimal solution, it is necessary not only to carry out a detailed analysis of the costs and benefits of the proposed options in the medium and long term but also to use independent experts to prepare the necessary studies and assessments.
The main literature used for the preparation of the article:
- Mariel Borowitz, 2022, The Military Use of Small Satellites in Orbit.
- Nicholas Eftimiades, 2022, Small Satellites: The Implications for National Security.
- Steven Kosiak, 2021, Small Satellites in the Emerging Space Environment Implications for U.S. National Security–Related Space Plans and Programs.
- Respective company websites.
About the author
Donatas Palavenis works as a junior researcher at the Baltic Institute of Advanced Technology (BPTI), and has a full-time job as an officer of the Lithuanian Armed Forces. In parallel, Donatas is a PhD Candidate at the General Jonas Zemaitis Military Academy of Lithuania. The main interests of the research are the defence industry of small NATO/EU countries, defence policy, defence economics, defence procurements, emerging disruptive technologies, and modern warfare.