WASHINGTON (National Academies PR) — Commercial advances in launch capability and the ability to build spacecraft more rapidly and affordably has led to a paradigm shift in the space industry that U.S. government agencies should leverage to support a wide range of science missions, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
In the last decade, the emergence of small satellites weighing less than 600 kilograms — known as SmallSats — has helped bring about a “New Space ecosystem,” according to the report. This ecosystem is marked by lower barriers of entry along with agile commercial organizations with higher risk tolerance and a focus on increased, rapid, and affordable access to space. Forty percent of all SmallSats launched in the past 10 years were launched in 2020, dominated by SpaceX, Starlink and OneWeb satellites.
Commercial organizations have already demonstrated the capabilities of SmallSats for technology development, remote Earth and ocean sensing, and other science missions. The report says that use of multiple SmallSats in various configurations could provide opportunities for advancements in coastal and ocean science, gravity research, climate science, and studies of the sun-Earth connection, among other possibilities.
The U.S. government should encourage the exploration of innovative acquisition strategies like public-private partnerships as a tool for adopting the commercial space industry’s technology and volume manufacturing capabilities and to promote a new national space ecosystem supportive of industry, government, and academic objectives, the report says. Public-private partnerships and other innovative procurement approaches can enhance national missions focused on communications, remote sensing, and military intelligence, as well as mission areas focused on scientific data collection in oceanography and monitoring natural and human-made disasters.
“SmallSats show significant potential for opening space to many scientific disciplines that would not normally be able to get there with a traditional higher-cost single satellite,” said Steven Battel, chair of the committee that wrote the report and president of Battel Engineering. “The New Space ecosystem will continue to grow with or without government participation, but there are substantial cost, schedule, and technical benefits to reap for the government if it engages with this burgeoning industry.”
The report also outlines the specific strengths and weaknesses of SmallSats and provides guidance on their potential mission application. For example, for ocean science and coastal data missions, while the use of SmallSats to measure ocean variables is an advantage for some applications, not all objectives may be achievable with SmallSats. Therefore, combining larger dedicated missions with SmallSat constellations is likely to be the best strategy to monitor the full range of processes occurring in the ocean.
The report also includes recommendations to improve government access to flexible and adaptable commercial services. Entities such as the Air Force Research Laboratory’s AFWERX, NASA’s Small Spacecraft Systems Virtual Institute, and the Small Payload Ride Share Association could jointly develop, manage, and communicate standards and best practices for key systems to support improved interoperability and enable better mission efficiency, according to the report. Government procurement mechanisms would need to be tailored to embrace evolving commercial practices and appropriate standards to address and accelerate decision speed, management of mission risk, and alignment of incentives to rapidly enable government space initiatives.
The study — undertaken by the Committee for the Assessment of Partnership Options for a Small Satellite System for Collecting Scientific Quality Oceanic and Coastal Data — was sponsored by the Office of Naval Research. The National Academies are a private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine. They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.