Harnessing the Small Satellite Revolution

Members of the NASA Ames Nodes Integration & Test team ready to integrate the Nodes 1 and 2 spacecraft (forefront) into the Nanoracks dispenser.(Credit: NASA)
Members of the NASA Ames Nodes Integration & Test team ready to integrate the Nodes 1 and 2 spacecraft (forefront) into the Nanoracks dispenser.(Credit: NASA)

by Steve Fetter and Tom Kalil
White House OSTP

Today, astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly are visiting the White House to talk to the President about developing innovative new space technologies. One critical area for technology development is making satellites more affordable, adaptable, and adept at providing the sorts of real-time information that will help advance knowledge out in space and on Earth.

For much of the Space Age, building and flying satellites was the sole province of governments and large corporations. Such spacecraft weighed tens of thousands of pounds, required a decade or more to develop, and cost billions of dollars to manufacture and test before they were ready to launch.

The ongoing renaissance in smallsats, spacecraft that weigh anywhere from an ounce to a few hundred pounds, is rapidly overturning fifty years of conventional wisdom. Technologies that have enabled tablets and smartphones are giving scientists the tools to build highly capable networks of smallsats, which can be designed, built, and tested in a fraction of the time and for vastly less money.

Smallsats also reach orbit rapidly, letting researchers experiment with their systems, and use what they learn to build the next generation—in far less time than traditional satellites. This compresses the innovation cycle, allowing smallsat builders and operators to respond more quickly to changing customer needs.

For national security systems, shorter and less expensive builds mean greater resilience to threats, through reconstitution (launching more satellites quickly) or via highly redundant swarms, where many small, inexpensive satellites supply the same functions as just a few, high-value large spacecraft today.

Today, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is announcing the “Harnessing the Small Satellite Revolution” initiative, building on a growing wave of private sector interest in miniaturized spacecraft for applications ranging from communications and remote sensing to satellite inspection and repair.

Working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Department of Commerce, Defense, and other Federal agencies, OSTP has identified the following opportunities promoting the use of small satellites (“smallsats”) for a variety of uses:

NASA will purchase up to $30 million of Earth observation data obtained commercially from small satellites, and will create a new Small Spacecraft Virtual Institute based out of the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley one-stop shop” for best practices, lessons learned, and standards for all phases of smallsat development.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) is partnering with the General Services Administration on the Commercial Initiative to Buy Operationally Responsive GEOINT (CIBORG) initiative to develop an efficient, single point of access for Federal agencies to purchase commercially-provided imagery data and associated analytical capabilities.

NGA has also awarded a $20 million contract to startup Planet to purchasing large quantities of imagery Planet collects from its network of “Dove” smallsats.

The Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has awarded contracts to GeoOptics, Inc., and Spire Global, Inc., two startups using smallsat constellations to collect radio-occultation data from global positioning system satellites, improving NOAA’s storm forecasting.

The Department of Commerce is also elevating the role of the Director of its Office of Space Commerce (OSC) to reflect commercial space’s increasing importance for increasing economic growth, productivity, and job creation.

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) is releasing satellite datasets as part of two prize-driven challenges to achieve breakthroughs in the analysis of overhead imagery.

The efforts outlined above are just a starting point. OSTP will continue to work with government agencies and private industry to identify additional steps that can be taken to strengthen U.S. leadership and promote transformative applications in remote sensing, communications, science, servicing and repair, and the exploration of space.

This is aligned with the President’s commitment to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation, and will, as he stated in Pittsburgh last week, “reignite our shared sense of possibility and optimism. Because here in America, with the right investments, with the unbelievable brilliance and ingenuity of young people…there is nothing we cannot do.”

Steve Fetter is the Principal Assistant Director for National Security & International Affairs for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Tom Kalil is the Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.