Assessment of SmallSat Utility and the Need for Dedicated, Low-Cost, Responsive Small Satellite Launch

Abstract:

SmallSats appear to have the potential of significantly decreasing the cost and increasing responsiveness of both military and civil space missions. However, there are 3 major barriers facing the large-scale development and deployment of large numbers of SmallSats:

  • There is a very strong need to contain, and most likely reduce, space spending over the next several years, and the military is largely focused on traditional (large and expensive) programs of record.
  • There is the perception among some members of the space community that the case for SmallSat utility and the corresponding need for a dedicated, low-cost responsive SmallSat launcher have not been proven.
  • There is no current dedicated, responsive (1–2 days), low-cost ($1 million to $7 million) launcher available.

Consequently, Microcosm has undertaken an internally funded study to evaluate, enumerate, and quantify where possible the principal arguments both for and against the development and rapid deployment of SmallSats, SmallSat constellations, and the associated SmallSat launch capability. The overall conclusions are as follows:
Adding SmallSats and one or more dedicated, small, responsive, low-cost launch systems can be used to:

  • Create the potential to reduce overall space system costs in the mid-term by billions of dollars
  • Reduce risk and fragility and increase overall mission assurance
  • Enable missions that are not realistically affordable with traditional systems
  • Provide responsive augmentation and replenishment for existing systems
  • Make newer, better technology available to the warfighter and the space community in much shorter times
  • Be more responsive to world events

A low-cost, responsive small launcher is a mission enabling capability that can complement traditional launch systems, provide greater near-term mission assurance, reduce cost, and significantly improve the utility of space to the modern warfighter and other users of space. The ability to respond to changing world events, the need to avoid creating more orbital debris, and the availability of much better orbits (i.e., better and more frequent coverage than from traditional orbits), require that SmallSats be placed responsively into non-traditional orbit regimes, which, in turn, creates the need for a dedicated launch system for operational SmallSats. While there are civil events that can use responsive missions, it is the military tactical missions that will be primary driver.
SmallSats have clear physical limitations and should not be regarded as a replacement for larger, traditional systems. Nonetheless, the current approach of using almost entirely traditional, large, very expensive spacecraft has led to a space infrastructure that is both too expensive and too fragile. Analogous to the current situation in space, the Air Force could not be successful using only a single type of aircraft, nor could the Navy be successful with only a single type of ship. To create a sustainable, robust, less fragile and more economical Space Force requires a balance of traditional large satellites and smaller, more responsive, much lower cost satellites and launch systems.

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Wertz, J. 8th Responsive Space Conference, Los Angeles, CA. March 8–11, 2010.