Hidebound government slowing smallsat industry


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The smallsat industry has found itself slowed by the federal government’s reluctance to adopt the new technologies that allow tiny satellites to do the same things that once required big satellites.

Small satellites have been hailed as a game changer in the space industry, but the government’s slower than anticipated adoption of smallsat technology has been a disappointment for many companies. “When the smallsat movement started, the thinking was, ’We don’t need the government,’” said Bhavya Lal, a researcher at the IDA Science and Technology Policy Institute, a federally funded think tank. “But over the last five years, almost all the smallsat companies we talked to are eager for government contracts” to make up for lackluster commercial demand, she said. “It’s something they didn’t anticipate.”

IDA last year published a wide-ranging study of the small satellite industry. There is a “growing realization that there aren’t as many business customers as originally hoped,” Lal said. “Maybe that will change as broadband mega constellations come on line.” Companies like SpaceX and OneWeb are projected to build huge constellations of small satellites but projects have taken longer to materialize than predicted.

Advocates of small satellites say government agencies have little economic incentive to experiment with unfamiliar technology. They can afford to buy large satellites and have yet to be convinced that lower cost smallsats can provide comparable services. [emphasis mine]

I think the conclusion highlighted in the quote above is faulty, based on past data and not likely future events. They are looking at the customers that exist before the new smallsat rockets come on line. Once cheap access for smallsats is assured, from multiple launchers, I expect the number of business customers will rise quickly.

Nonetheless, there is no harm in lobbying our government for more business, as long as this new industry doesn’t become dependent on it. If that happens, expect costs to rise and innovation to slow.

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4 comments

  • Edward

    From the article: “ There is a ‘growing realization that there aren’t as many business customers as originally hoped,’

    I’m a little confused by this statement. There are hundreds of cubesats and smallsats already being launched, sometimes hundreds in one year. These are coming from multiple companies and universities. Even the proposed multi-hundred and multi-thousand constellations of smallsats are from not just one but four companies.

    Maybe there was a hope for hundreds of customers, by now, but as Robert points out, there is not yet much inexpensive launch capability available. This is only now beginning to happen, as only one smallsat launch company has shown that it can do the job, so far, but not yet at a high cadence of launches. Two other launch companies should be coming on line in the next year or two.

    It is more likely the lack of available launch opportunities, not a reluctance by government to go small, that is hampering the smallsat market.

    If you can’t get them on orbit, why bother building them?

  • David M. Cook

    I’ve been under the assumption that the biggest market is for small boosters to launch payloads for university students. Is this correct? I have considered making a business plan for this type of customer, but perhaps this market isn’t as big as I thought it is.

  • David M. Cook: I can’t give you any precise numbers, but I have been following this part of the space business for years. Universities that have programs for teaching engineering students how to build satellites, using cubesats, have had a lot of problems getting these cubesats launched. I think if they had a launch rocket that would charge a reasonable amount they would pay it. It would enhance their program, making it a more valuable choice for students.

  • Chris

    Course. Credits Tuition/Lab fee

    Cube Sat 101 4. $1800
    Cube Sat lab. 1 $7500

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