Performance Based Cost Modeling: Quantifying the Cost Reduction Potential of Small Observation Satellites


In the present budget environment, there is a strong need to drive down the cost of space missions. There is the perception that small satellites are inherently much lower cost than more traditional, larger satellites and can play a central role in reducing overall mission cost, but this effect has been difficult to quantify. Without quantifiable evidence of their value, we believe that small satellites are under-utilized as a method for reducing mission costs.
The purpose of this study is to quantify the relationship between cost and performance for Earth observation systems. We conclude that for an Earth observation system, an increase in performance, reduction in cost, or both, is possible by using multiple SmallSats at lower altitudes when compared to traditional systems. This paper provides an estimate for the level of cost reduction. Specifically,

  1. Past Earth observation systems have used traditional space technology to achieve the best possible performance, but have been very expensive
  2. In addition, low-cost, responsive dedicated launch has not been available for SmallSats
  3. Using modern microelectronics, future SmallSat observation systems, operating at a lower altitude than traditional systems, have the potential for:
    1. Comparable or Better Performance (Resolution and Coverage)
    2. Much Lower Overall Mission Cost (by a factor of 2 to 10)
    3. Lower Risk (both Implementation and Operations)
    4. Shorter Schedule
  4. Relevant secondary advantages for the low-altitude SmallSats include:
    1. Lower up-front development cost
    2. More sustainable business model
    3. More flexible and resilient
    4. More responsive to both new technology and changing needs
    5. Mitigates the problem of orbital debris

The principal demerits of the approach are the lack of a low-cost, responsive launch vehicles and the need for a new way of doing business and changing the way we think about the use of space assets. This paper provides the basis for this assessment and the quantitative results.

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Shao, A., E. Koltz, and J. Wertz. Reinventing Space Conference, Los Angeles, CA. October 14–17, 2013.