Small Satellites Could Offer More Flexibility and Resiliency

One problem with satellites is that they’re either one-offs or part of a constellation of a single, costly design. Both can be expensive and neither lends itself to getting a specialized satellite into orbit quickly and on a budget.

The answer to this is the use of a class of a small satellites that are relatively easy to customize and economical to launch. This small satellite market is one that is “coming of age,” potentially worth billions over the next 10 years.

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Sharing a common architecture, flight software and simplified payload integration options, the satellites could perform missions ranging from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to planetary science.

Equipped with tailored avionics and selective redundancy options, the satellites meet mission requirements for reliability and service life at an affordable cost. The satellites also feature high autonomy, streamlined operations and low-risk integration.
By doing so, the designs will simplify integration work for missions ranging from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for government customers to civil planetary science.
These options could interest the U.S. Air Force, which is exploring opportunities to disaggregate missions in the future so as not to have to develop massive, $1 billion satellites such as the Space-Based Infrared System or Advanced Extremely High Frequency constellation. Though this may not be a cheaper approach than building large satellites, it could offer more flexibility and resiliency than today’s architecture, says Gen. William Shelton, Air Force Space Command chief.
In line with the above, Boeing’s Phantom Phoenix unveiled its family of satellites, that comes in three configurations, each sharing a common architecture and flight software, potentially cutting down on unique research and development costs for customers. In the past, each Air Force satellite program required dedicated software and a large development cost for uniquely designed or modified buses.
“Building upon the success Boeing has had with our 702 satellite family, we’ve rapidly developed a line of satellites to address the market between large geosynchronous spacecraft and nanosatellites,” says Darryl Davis, president of Boeing Phantom Works.
The Phantom Phoenix Nano is a four to ten kilogram (8.8 to 22 lb) nanosatellite aimed at weather and science missions of up to one year duration.
The Phantom Phoenix includes also:

  • Phantom Phoenix ESPA: This 180 kilogram (396.8 lb) bird is for missions lasting one to five years and uses a common interstage adapter to allow up to six satellites to be launched at a time.
  • Phantom Phoenix: This 500 to 1,000 kilogram (1,102 to 2,204 lb) satellite is for single or dual-launch missions of over seven years duration.

The nearest-term opportunities for the Air Force to buy into such a smaller satellite option are likely in a few years, when the service must decide on whether to buy a seventh Sbirs and AEHF satellite. In the meantime, however, Shelton tells Aviation Week that he will be a “very demanding taskmaster on the weather satellite” being developed in the wake of the demise of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System in 2010. “It has got to stay very small,” he says, adding that hosting weather sensors on other satellites is also an option as the Air Force looks for new environmental monitoring concepts.

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