Microsatellites’ Performances Reaching Commercial Level

The Commercial Space Project Group blog posts will refocus again on the group’s research after the series of publications about SGC13. This post will analyze how the performances of microsatellites have reached a level in which they are commercially attractive.

The miniaturization of components is dramatically expanding the mission capabilities for Nano and Microsatellites. Key performance indicators (resolution, downlink rate…) improve more than an order of magnitude per decade approximating the so called Moore’s law. This is empowering Microsatellites to perform increasingly challenging missions beyond technology demonstrations. Multiple factors have contributed to enhance their performances such as miniaturization of electronics or the availability of low-cost and high-performance electronics.

Nano/Microsatellites present a completely new set of attributes that make them especially appropriate for missions requiring shorter development times, low development costs or short replacement periods due to rapid technology obsolescence.

Many of the satellites in this segment follow the standardized CubeSats frames (U = 1kg and 10x10x10 cm: 1U, 3U, 12U), which lead to easier design and integration. The fact that these satellites usually orbit at LEO (Low Earth Orbit) makes the requirements to support the harsh Space environment less pressing. 30 years ago Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd disrupted the satellite market when demonstrated that the use of COTS (Commercial Off-The Shelf) components was feasible in space. This enabled the design of more affordable satellites without giving up on performance. Moreover, it has permitted to leverage on the R&D investments done in commercial electronics for the mass market. These products are manufactured in high volumes reducing cost, need to have high reliability and their performances far exceeds the ones seen in radiation-hard components. Easier designs and the use of existing technologies lead to reduced manufacturing costs, which opens the market to new customers. More satellites built reinforces the standard CubeSat platforms allowing manufacturers to establish batch production processes again lowering costs. Some satellite manufacturers have even developed pre-assembled spacecrafts significantly reducing development times. All these factors minimize the economic loss in case of mission failure, which at the same time reduces investment risk, insurance costs, and launch cost (reliability is less critical and economies of scale).


Fig. 1: Evolution of Downlink Rate & On-Board Storage in SSTL Delivered Satellites: 1.a) Absolute Value; 1.b) Specific Value

Key enabling technologies for Microsatellites have witnessed a tremendous evolution. Because of the use of COTS components, some sub-systems have followed Moore’s law. Downlink rate and storage capacity have increased more than an order of magnitude every decade. GSD (Ground Sampling Distance) has been evolving following a similar trend (Fig. 1.a & 2.a). Specific performances have grown an order of magnitude per decade (Fig. 1.b & 2.b). 10 years ago, to achieve a resolution of 1m a satellite in the 1 ton order of magnitude was necessary; today, such resolutions can be achieved with satellites in the 100kg order of magnitude.

Downlink rate

Fig. 2: Evolution of GSD in SSTL Delivered Satellites: 1.a) Absolute Value; 1.b) Specific Value

This trend hasn’t reached its limit with new breakthrough technologies coming. As electronics shrink and increase performances, more power need to be created in the reduced exterior area of Microsatellite platforms. Tests on multilayer solar cells have reached efficiencies up to 44%. Shape memory alloys will soon permit reduce mass, volume and cost of deployment mechanisms.

Nano/Microsats still have some limitations. There is some room for improvement in some sub-systems like the AOCS (Attitude and Orbit Control System) in nanosatellites that will allow them to deploy new concepts like formation-flying. Key technologies to perform beyond-LEO missions are still to be developed (thermal control, laser communications…). LEO orbits present some challenges such as lower visibility times over local targets leading to the need for bigger constellations. Increasingly crowded orbits and Space debris certainly pose a collision risk for LEO constellations. Finally, the lack of a dedicated Microlauncher limits their capacity to select launch date, orbit or the development of advanced concepts like formation-flying or distributed architectures.

Despite some challenges still need to be solved, the performances of microsatellites are improving at a very rapid pace. For some applications like Earth observation, microsatellites have reached a performance level at which they can be commercially competitive with bigger platforms.

Additional details can be found at Palerm, Barrera & Salas; MICROSATELLITES AND MICROLAUNCHERS – THE TANDEM THAT WILL DISRUPT THE SATELLITE INDUSTRY, IAC-13-E6.1.9. This paper is the winner of the Space is Business Competition organized by the International Astronautical Federation’s (IAF) Entrepreneurship and Investment Committee (EIC) in cooperation with the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC).

This article expresses the opinion of the authors alone; it does not represent the official positions of any organization or company, including Space Generation Advisory Council or the authors’ employer.

by Lluc Palerm


SGC2013 – Industry Working Group (4/4): Knowledge management

The last main topic discussed in the Industry Working Group of SGC2013 was related to knowledge management. This is going to be the last post of this series. New topics related with the nascent microsatellite industry, human commercial spaceflight or industry clusters among others will follow in future entries.

The new generation of space professionals is facing an issue quite related to the age gap present in space industry: technology transfer/knowledge management.

Many space senior professionals are near to retirement and young generations are moving between companies or doing international motilities.

How to transfer this know-how that is not written on the reports or data packages which are normally customer oriented, and how to transfer this know-how needed to face the everyday issues which is only acquired with the experience are some of the difficulties that have been observed.

This challenge, observed by many of the young space professionals has been analyzed with the different inputs and points of view of delegates from many different companies and regions around the world.

In the previous generations, space-related professionals used to stay in the same company for a long term, in many occasions the entirety of their professional career. That made it quite easy to share the know-how with the different teams, and to share the lessons learnt during the development of a project. The situation has changed drastically. While space projects last normally a few years, in many occasions the core team workers do not stay within the project during all its length.


The current employment trends, where individuals move frequently between companies and projects over the course of their careers, is creating knowledge management challenges.

The availability of new technologies and software tools make it easier to address this problem, but significant capability remains embedded in human capital.


Recommendation 1

Exploring new software tools for effective knowledge management, sharing, and storage.

An analysis of the available tools and how they can adapt to the needs of the different projects of business areas of the companies should be done. Space projects in general, are characterized by very long duration in comparison with other kind of industries. This makes it especially important to keep track of all the issues faced during its development, as well as the key factors taken into account to face them.

An effective knowledge management tool must provide information about know-how and lessons learnt from a project, which are not usually written down on the project data packages (customer oriented) and can be significantly useful to face a new upcoming project.

Recommendation 2

Creating user-friendly repositories that allow professionals to access experts and information that remain out of reach.

In many cases, some repositories are already implemented within the different companies. However, sometimes these are not liked by users. The need of a user-friendly tool, easily understandable and intuitive would easily simplify the task.

The Space sector average employee age is increasing and many professionals are close to retirement. A big percentage of the workers were born before the IT revolution and they are not so skilled in using these tools. User-friendly and intuitive repositories would be easier accepted by all space professionals.

This tool would also be useful to share the findings from R&D teams within companies and engineers working on regular projects. Lack of communication between teams can easily occur in big companies and in many occasions it suppresses the mutual benefit of shared knowledge for R&D teams. The mentioned tool/repository would allow space professionals to access not only already finished project’s information but also present research activities for the benefit of all activities pursued within the company/organization.

Recommendation 3

Foster a closer work environment between professionals at all levels of experience.

As it has already been mentioned before, there are many space professionals close to retirement. This generation, completely full of experience and space related knowledge is crucial to teach and assist the young space professionals. However, sometimes younger professionals face some difficulties to approach them. The company management should foster a work environment between professionals at all levels of experience. An example to make them work closer and foment team spirit would be to introduce inverse mentoring programs. Young space professionals grew up surrounded by high-tech technologies. This fact makes them really effective workers while using high-tech tools or learning how to use new ones. The new generation, that usually receives mentoring from the other ones, could assist them to use new high-tech tools.

Recommendation 4

Prioritizing the development and long-term training of young professionals in project management strategy.

The age gap has been identified as a major issue within the space industry. Qualified space professionals are usually in charge of the mentoring of new engineers and developers. However, an effective mentoring process can take a few years, which sometimes is not possible due to the work load or retirements processes.

Many times it a loss of information has been observed when long term employees are leaving the company due to retirement. To increase continuous information transfer the age gap should be avoided.

Project management strategy should focus on a more continuous hiring. To hire in smaller amounts of people but more continuously would definitely benefit industry, having a more effective know-how transfer.

The hiring strategy should be focused on the long term, and not only in the work-load needed for the present projects. This would allow having always a variety of different ages of professionals involved in the same project, and would result in an effective know-how transfer program.

Reporting: Sandra González Díaz. Subject Matter Experts: Paul Guthrie, Alanna Krolikowski. Moderator: Sandra González Díaz. Delegates: Emma Braegen, Cynthia Chen, Zorana Dancuo, Thomas Hobbs, Chung Sheng Huang, Jakob Huesing, Abhijet Kumar, Philipp Maier, Daichi Nakamura, Pavel Paces, Lluc Palerm, Daniel Sagath, Olga Stelmakh, Jan Svoboda, Nicole Tchorowski , Prater Tracie, Saqib Mehmood, Phillippa Blaber, Luís Ferreira, Felipe Arevalo, Zihua Zhu

SGC2013 – Industry Working Group (3/4): Internationalization and industrial cooperation

After analyzing the market focus of the industry with the posts of customer focus and entrepreneurship. The working group turned its efforts toward improving operational issues like industry internationalization, industrial cooperation and knowledge management. In this session, the recommendations of the working group on internationalization and industrial cooperation are explained.

One nation alone cannot hope to solve every problem in space technology, whether it is space exploration or satellite communications. In addition, developments in space technology not only aid a single nation or firm, but advance humanity forward. The International Space Station (ISS) is a prime example of the achievements that can be accomplished when international collaborations are utilized. The cost of the ISS runs over $100 billion, an amount that would be unaffordable for any singular nation. However, it has brought a myriad of high tech jobs to Earth, as well as countless advancements in scientific research.  The SGC 2013 Industry Group recommends that international collaborations should be taken advantage of and further invested in.


While the space industry is more global and diffused than ever, young professionals still face legacy regulatory and legal barriers to collaboration with colleagues in other countries. These barriers prevent the industry from reaping the benefits of emerging international networks.


Recommendation 1

Invest in international public-private partnerships to efficiently resolve interface, standards, and other technical issues that individual governments and firms cannot address alone.

Recommendation 2

Take full advantage of new low-cost, small-scale technologies to build international partnerships.

  • Hosted Payloads
  • Small Satellites

Space missions typically have large investments associated with them. Similarly to the ISS, collaborations between nations and firms could lead to reductions in the cost of large scale projects to each individual participant.

One international public-private partnership that the SGC 2013 industry group recommends is to resolve interfaces and standards. One example of standards providing a benefit to the industry is the Consultative Committee for Space Data Standards (CCSDS). Founded in 1982 by a collaboration of major space agencies, it provides a forum for data and information system standards. Standards for space communication protocols, for example, can easily be accessed by all agencies. These standards help to promote interoperability between space agencies and firms. Furthermore, having a multi-member agency for data standards reduces the cost of space missions, as less time needs to be spent developing communications protocols.

Standards and interfaces alone are not the only partnership that nations can take advantage of. Currently, the small satellite industry is becoming a more viable option for many countries and firms to use. These groups may not have the capital or ability to launch on larger satellites, but small satellites provide off-the-shelf technologies at a much cheaper price.

Another low-cost, small-scale technology that can be used to foster international cooperation is hosted payloads. These payloads are attached to satellites, but operate independently of the rest of the spacecraft. Because firms and nations would not have to develop their own satellites, this drastically reduces the cost of a mission. Nations that could benefit from space technology, such as earth imaging, but don’t have a large enough budget to host a satellite could partner with launch-capable nations or companies. In addition, firms that could benefit from space technology could similarly pair with nations or other firms.

Reporting: Nicole Tchorowski. Subject Matter Experts: Paul Guthrie, Alanna Krolikowski. Moderator: Sandra González Díaz. Delegates: Emma Braegen, Cynthia Chen, Zorana Dancuo, Thomas Hobbs, Chung Sheng Huang, Jakob Huesing, Abhijet Kumar, Philipp Maier, Daichi Nakamura, Pavel Paces, Lluc Palerm, Daniel Sagath, Olga Stelmakh, Jan Svoboda, Prater Tracie, Saqib Mehmood, Phillippa Blaber, Luís Ferreira, Felipe Arevalo, Zihua Zhu

SGC2013 – Industry Working Group (2/4): Entrepreneurship

After the holydays season, the SGAC Commercial Space Project Group blog restarts the publication of industry analysis with the second chapter in the series of posts summarizing the SGC2013 Industry Group gathering. In this session, the discussions on how to foster entrepreneurship within the Space industry are presented.

There are various intrinsic factors of the space industry that hinder innovation and entrepreneurship. The industry structure inherited from the times of government programs dominating the industry certainly poses a challenge for innovation.

Typically, space projects need big initial investments and long development times. These long development times translate into long time to market increasing the risk and the cost of capital. These are undesirable characteristics for an entrepreneurial industry.

The huge level of complexity with multidisciplinary projects requiring big teams and investments, and the preference for proven technologies to avoid the risk of malfunctions during the operation of the mission are as well features hampering innovation.


Across the global Space industry, entrepreneurship faces many barriers that hinder innovation, flexibility, and growth industry-wide


Recommendation 1

Explore and integrate, where appropriate, best practices from adjacent high-tech industries to foster innovation

a)      Where feasible, allow employees to dedicate resources to their initiatives in independent projects

b)      Invest in tools and processes to connect space professionals with experts addressing similar challenges in other industries.

Recommendation 2

Support the exposure of entrepreneurial thinking and practices to technical students and professionals through training, education, and external speakers

In order to overcome these problems, the SGC 2013 Industry Group recommends looking into other industries’ best practices and incorporating them to foster innovation. Space industry should make full use of Open Innovation tools to improve how the industry gets new ideas from other high-tech industries solving similar problems (inward technology transfer) or how technologies developed for aerospace can serve other markets (spin-off).

It would also be beneficial, for increasing innovation in the industry, that organizations commit themselves to support new projects started by employees. This may include allowing them to use the laboratories and workshops in non-working hours, build complementary teams with managerial and engineering knowledge, dedicate part of the working hours to personal initiatives or even give financial support to these projects.

All these measures could be implemented in a faster way and in a greater degree if students and professionals throughout the space sector are trained, educated, and exposed to more entrepreneurial and innovative thinking.

The nascent NewSpace industry provides some examples of good practices for fostering innovation and entrepreneurship. The emerging microsatellite segment is a good example of that. Leveraging on new commercial off the shelf technologies with lower costs, they can apply lean development techniques shortening the time to market and reducing the risk and the level of investment required. NewSpace players are as well opening their operations to new markets like Media and Outreach like in the RedBull Stratos experience. NewSpace companies also have a new way to approach product development engaging in rapid prototyping leading to shorter build-test-learn cycles like in the case of Rocket Lab. This new entrepreneurial culture is creating a good number of distributed innovation opportunities with great potential for scalability and market disruption.

Reporting: Lluc Palerm. Subject Matter Experts: Paul Guthrie, Alanna Krolikowski. Moderator: Sandra González Díaz. Delegates: Nicole Tchorowski, Emma Braegen, Cynthia Chen, Zorana Dancuo, Thomas Hobbs, Chung Sheng Huang, Jakob Huesing, Abhijet Kumar, Philipp Maier, Daichi Nakamura, Pavel Paces, Daniel Sagath, Olga Stelmakh, Jan Svoboda, Prater Tracie, Saqib Mehmood, Phillippa Blaber, Luís Ferreira, Felipe Arevalo, Zihua Zhu

SGC2013 – Industry Working Group (1/4): Lack of customer focus

Last September, delegates of the Space Generation Congress 2013 gathered in Beijing to discuss about current trends and future perspectives in the Space sector. 5 themes were prioritized: Industry, Agency, Society, Exploration, and Earth Observation. The following series of posts in the SGAC Commercial Space blog will present the recommendations provided by delegates in the Industry Working Group.

These recommendations aim at improving the efficacy and efficiency of the industry to ensure its long term sustainability. In this first post, how Space companies have many times incurred heavy investments in technical developments without looking into the actual needs of their customers leading to catastrophic financial results is discussed.

Space is inspiring. It certainly is one of the most demanding engineering areas. In such a harsh environment, even the slightest malfunction of a component may cause the failure of the whole system. Players in this industry have achieved impressive engineering milestones, unfortunately, this same focus on engineering has made these companies rely too much on the ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy. There are many examples of outstanding engineering projects that have turned to be terrible financial investments. Iridium is a remarkable example of that: it solved incredibly challenging engineering problems like assembly production of satellites (1 satellite each 4.5 days) or launching 72 spacecraft in about a year, while being a complete commercial failure because the company did not understand the market. Iridium was only able to attract 20% of the initially forecasted customers.

In the early ages of the industry (and in a lower level still today) governments exerted a great influence on the industry. Obviously, the space industry has been organized to respond to the governments’ demands. Needless to say, motivations for governments are different from commercial profitability: they seek to generate employment, foster STEM education or boost the national pride. The need to satisfy defense high-tech demands has transformed some aerospace companies into organizations closer to research institutions with very long term developments than to flexible companies in a competitive market. In a time in which governments are moderating their expenditures and investors are lowering the value on high-risk endeavors and favoring flexibility in front of long term plans, aerospace companies should adapt themselves into a commercially driven, customer oriented industry.


Today’s Young people face an industry that must be more responsive to customer needs and market demand


Recommendation 1

Use market data and research tools to ensure efficient use of resources in agency programs and commercial investments

Recommendation 2

At early stages of development, commit resources to generate reliable insight into customer demand and use cases

Recommendation 3

Involve a wider range of stakeholders (especially final users) in product development

a)      Integrate techniques like design thinking, customer development, and lean market-product development

b)      Low-volume production and prototyping for early market feedback (before main investment), potentially using emerging technologies like rapid prototyping or 3D-printing

In order to better satisfy the market needs and hence have optimal investments, the students and young professionals at the SGC 2013 suggested to the industry to make full use of market data and research tools to improve the decision making process in commercial space.

Ideally, these efforts should be done very early in the process; market should be validated before the big investments in product development are incurred. There is a new wave of market research techniques that should be incorporated to the industry like design thinking, a technique that combines creativity, empathy, and rationality to create innovative solutions for customers’ problems; customer development, for early product-market fit validation; or lean development for cost-effective launch of new products and services.

As an example, in the case of Iridium deployment, an early local simulation of the network conditions (data rate, building signal attenuation, terminal size, costs…) would have been very useful for calibrating the market and taking further product development and investment decisions.

Similarly, one of the most successful companies in space at the moment, SpaceX, is expanding the attributes of their services well beyond a technically bold vehicle (engineering focus). It works on understanding what is valued by its customers to better serve them by outperforming competitors in these underserved attributes (customer focus).

Reporting: Lluc Palerm. Subject Matter Experts: Paul Guthrie, Alanna Krolikowski. Moderator: Sandra González Díaz. Delegates: Nicole Tchorowski, Emma Braegen, Cynthia Chen, Zorana Dancuo, Thomas Hobbs, Chung Sheng Huang, Jakob Huesing, Abhijet Kumar, Philipp Maier, Daichi Nakamura, Pavel Paces, Daniel Sagath, Olga Stelmakh, Jan Svoboda, Prater Tracie, Saqib Mehmood, Phillippa Blaber, Luís Ferreira, Felipe Arevalo, Zihua Zhu

New launch services for miniaturized satellites

After the busiest week ever in satellite launches, over 60 satellites were inserted into orbit with two launchers carrying more than 20 microsatellites each, it is clear that the industry is witnessing a revolution. Nano (1-10 kg) and microsatellites’ (10-100 kg) performances are evolving at a really fast pace: key indicators (resolution, downlink rate…) improve more than an order of magnitude per decade. This is empowering microsatellites to perform increasingly challenging missions beyond technology demonstrations with multiple operators creating commercial applications based on miniaturized satellites. Despite the increasing demand for launch opportunities for microsatellites, incumbent launch providers are ignoring this trend with oversized launchers (which actually makes sense from their perspective since microsats are not the mainstream solution yet, are not the most profitable products and a dedicated microlauncher won’t compete with them). However, the clear oversupply in launch capacity makes microsatellites sacrifice key attributes like orbit selection or launch date definition hindering their operability. This problem would be solved with a dedicated microsatellite launcher.


Figure 1: Level of satisfaction for microsatellites with current launchers available and a microlauncher from 0 (inexistent attribute) to 6 (oversupply)

The premium price a customer is willing to pay for a particular attribute is directly related to the level of demand of this attribute. Performance oversupply initiates a change in the criteria (differentiating attributes) used by customers to choose among competing offers. This change in criteria is usually modelled by the buying hierarchy, which typically follows four phases: functionality, reliability, convenience, and price. The oversupply in functional attributes (payload capacity and orbit) makes microsatellites underserved in other attributes. While some microsatellites, especially those for technology development and educational purposes, prioritize functional and price attributes, other operators like commercial agents may require other attributes like schedule or orbit selection to be met.

Functionality: Payload Capacity and Orbit Altitude & Inclination

There are three main interrelated attributes that determine the functionality of a launcher: payload capacity, orbit altitude and orbit inclination. There is currently a clear performance oversupply in microsatellites functional requirements. There is no commercially available dedicated launcher for nano/microsatellites. Microsatellites must sacrifice attributes in other levels of the buying hierarchy to get into orbit.


With current levels of technology, miniaturization acting in favour of the development of a microlauncher, the proliferation of small and medium sized rockets for third markets, and the possibility to use simpler technologies like pressure-fed instead of pump-fed rockets, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that similar levels of reliability can be achieved.

Convenience: Orbit & Launch Date Selection and Constellations

The increasing complexity of the missions performed by microsatellites makes some attributes key for their development. There are several projects aiming at building constellations of microsatellites or other projects requiring precise orbit insertion. Flying as secondary payloads or in multi-manifest launches, microsatellites either sacrifice the convenience of selecting the orbit and the launch date or need to pay the extra cost of being launched with an oversized vehicle.

Another very interesting convenience advantage of microlaunchers is the fact that microsatellites won’t have to bear anymore the delays of bigger payloads. While it might not be a big issue for educational or scientific payloads, it certainly is a problem for commercial companies developing microsatellites and delaying their developments. Skybox Imaging and Dauria Aerospace suffered this in their own skin by having to hitchhike in the Soyuz launch for Meteor-M2 with multiple delays.

There are some other attributes that might be valuable for particular customers. Responsiveness can be important for military uses or for replacement of malfunctioning satellites in constellations.

The existing oversupply in the functional attributes (lifting capacity and orbit inclination and altitude) translates into underserved needs in the convenience attributes.

Price: Total Project Costs and Scalability Issues

In the general satellite industry, launches are not a mission cost driver. However, this is not the case for the nano/microsatellite segment. The development cost of a microsatellite is in the $10 millionorder of magnitude while launch cost in the $1 million order of magnitude. Despite the fact that many microsatellites developers work with constrained budgets and are price sensitive (universities), some of the clients might be willing to pay a premium (commercial operators or military organizations) for the additional attributes offered by a dedicated launch. There are some preliminary studies stating that dedicated launchers could offer prices comparable to the current secondary payload market: ALASA targets to put 50 kg of payload to LEO for $1 million.

Risk: Reduction and Distribution of Risk

There are other cost-risk factors that may influence the premium price requested for a dedicated launch. Launching an entire or a significant part of a constellation in a single flight presents important risks. Nothing better than a staged deployment to check the performances of a constellation of satellites under real conditions. Putting a great part of the working assets of a satellite operator company in a single launch (mostly out of control of the satellite operator) is certainly a risk for the enterprise. These factors are directly related with the insurance cost and the premium returns investors would require for the extra risk.

Sustaining and Disruptive Innovation graph

Figure 2: The lower level of product performance requirements of miniaturized satellites for launchers is creating space for new value propositions

The increasing demand for complex missions performed by microsatellites together with the incapacity of current launchers to satisfy the convenience needs for miniaturized satellites creates a big market opportunity for dedicated microsatellite launchers.

by Lluc Palerm

Additional details can be found at Palerm, Barrera & Salas; MICROSATELLITES AND MICROLAUNCHERS – THE TANDEM THAT WILL DISRUPT THE SATELLITE INDUSTRY, IAC-13-E6.1.9. This paper is the winner of the Space is Business Competition organized by the International Astronautical Federation’s (IAF) Entrepreneurship and Investment Committee (EIC) in cooperation with the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC).

This article expresses the opinion of the authors alone; it does not represent the official positions of any organization or company, including Space Generation Advisory Council or the authors’ employer.