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Why Small Satellites and the ‘Microspace’ Approach are Keys to Developing a National Earth Observation Program

In the previous blog, we discussed the emerging trend of small countries developing their own Earth observation programs, with Slovenia and its NEMO-HD microsatellite built by Space Flight Laboratory being the most recent example. The catalyst for this trend is simple – Sophisticated spaceborne remote sensing missions can be developed and launched today in much less time and at a fraction of the cost of traditional Landsat-style satellites thanks to microspace technology.

Before diving into the economics of microspace, we should explain that this term describes a development philosophy that typically applies to nano-, micro- or small satellites.

The important thing to remember about these smaller satellites is they have been around for a long time. While inexpensive, however, the early smallsats lacked important capabilities needed for operational missions. It has only been since the late 1990s when microsatellites started to be built for significant missions that required three-axis pointing, like the MOST space telescope.  This was the time when Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) began developing missions that perform practical commercial and scientific functions, including Earth observation. (We will address these key capabilities in the next blog).

With regards to national Earth observation programs, the primary appeal of microspace technology is cost. Today, an agile remote sensing platform carrying a high-resolution optical or radar imaging sensor can be built for 50 to 100 times less than that of a traditional Landsat-type satellite just 20 years ago.
Miniaturization, of course, has been a primary technical driver in the smallsat revolution, but it’s not the whole story. Components, subsystems, and sensors have gotten smaller, which means the satellite bus itself can be more compact and therefore less expensive to build and launch. However, the term ‘microspace’ refers as much to the approach to developing smaller satellites as it does to the size of the end product. And this approach greatly impacts overall mission economics.

What does the ‘microspace approach’ really mean? In addition to leveraging the latest commercial technologies, microspace companies like Space Flight Laboratory use a highly focused development philosophy to rapidly move from concept to launch. This fast and efficient methodology, when applied correctly, contributes to lower cost and more timely development without sacrificing quality. It involves small tightly integrated teams that follow a streamlined approach with reduced formality. Microspace is about good design and thorough testing, not bloated rigid process.

The most important tip we can offer to any organization considering its own Earth observation mission, whether governmental or private sector, is to start with the end-use application in mind, i.e., what will the satellite do? And then choose your satellite developer carefully, one with a track record of success based on properly applying the philosophy of microspace development.

Describe these objectives to the microspace organization you have selected to build your mission and let them manage the entire process from there. Attempting to tell a microspace company how to build the satellite, what components to buy, and which subcontractors to select will only drive costs up and significantly delay the construction timeline.

In our next blog, we will look at those microspace capabilities that have given small satellites the ability to carry out successful operational remote sensing missions.