Advancements in small satellites a fraction of the size of those already circling the Earth have companies scrambling to capitalize on the burgeoning "CubeSat" industry. Yet more sophisticated uses of the still-adolescent technology remain unproven amid concerns over the long-term viability of the sector.
The U.S. space industry is going through a revolution. Companies such as SpaceX, owned by Tesla founder Elon Musk, are helping to pivot the sector toward a more sustainable commercial model. President Trump’s plans for a new branch of the armed forces dedicated to space have focused attention on the domain at a level not seen in decades. And products with heightened capabilities in a slew of different areas are helping to drive down overall costs and fuel outside investment.
CubeSats are a key part of the shift.
While a traditional satellite launch can cost hundreds of millions of dollars, CubeSats are a fraction of the price. Roughly the size of a loaf of bread, Cubesats can also ride alongside larger satellites for purposes of data collection and other objectives.
In May, NASA launched a stationary lander called InSight to study the interior of Mars. The agency for the first time sent two CubeSats to fly alongside the probe to transmit data back to NASA once InSight lands later this year.
In total, the industry has launched close to 900 smaller satellites into lower orbit over the past decade that then report back piles of data on the planet. Top firms like Planet, for example, have sent 298 CubeSats into space, while competitors like Blue Canyon have launched four spacecrafts.
“Rather than having one satellite that may revisit your spot over the Earth every three days or so — or even longer — you can build 100 satellites that would give you 10-to-15-minute revisit times,” Daniel Hegel, Blue Canyon’s director of advanced development, told the Washington Examiner. “Now, you’re taking a hundred measurements simultaneously around the globe.”
Firms are monetizing the technology in a variety of ways. Companies sell data to aid in weather forecasting, help governments map land usage, assist with deforestation monitoring and support disaster response.
“The applications are essentially limitless,” Mike Safyan, vice president of launch and global ground stations networks at Planet, said in a recent interview. “We believe that we’re just starting to scratch the surface of what we can do with this data.”
But despite those benefits, there are key hurdles for the still-nascent industry to leap.
After launch, for example, the satellites follow a precise route once they reach orbit. A propulsion system similar to those found on large satellites would give companies the ability to move them around more easily, but that technology remains under development.
Another major question is how the industry can continue to thrive financially as new uses for CubeSats are developed.
“We don’t know if it's sustainable, if it’s enough of a market to keep them in business for the medium term,” said Michael Swartwout, associate professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering at St. Louis University. “There are only a few key paths to monetization.”
A slew of firms have launched in the past several years, and a good portion may not survive.
“With the other CubeSat efforts out there, some of them have to go through the pains of entering a new market, trying to create a new market or competing with other data providers who are providing similar things,” Planet’s Safyan said. “There’s likely going to be further consolidation or maybe not every company is going to make it.”
Among the areas still under development is how CubeSats could be used to more quickly communicate trading information to Wall Street investors or using the small satellites to provide high speed broadband in more remote locations.
“It ranks up there among the important technical structural changes impacting the [space exploration] industry,” industry analyst Chris Quilty said of CubeSats. “Most of these end-market capabilities are still being proven out.”
The excitement around the technology is driven by an ambitious goal that it could replace the gigantic, expensive satellites that have dominated the industry for decades. And large contractors have taken note.
Boeing in August acquired small satellite firm Millennium Space Systems for an undisclosed price. And last year, Lockheed Martin invested in Terran Orbital, another small satellite maker, also for an undisclosed price.
“It has turned into the nuclear winter for the traditional satellite manufacturers,” Quilty said.
The lower cost of the small satellites means companies and the federal government are less adverse to experimentation. It has also helped to democratize space to the point where now even high school students can get firsthand experience building and operating a satellite.
Arizona State University, for example, is working with NASA to develop a CubeSat to explore the presence of water and ice on the moon. The satellite is expected to launch alongside NASA’s Exploration Mission I in 2019.
"We wouldn’t do those things with a billion dollar spacecraft because they're traditionally seen as too risky. The technologies that we’re using are not the same sort of decades long, tried and true technologies that NASA would traditionally send on an interplanetary space mission, but that's part of the changing paradigm surrounding this kind of science mission," Craig Hardgrove, the principle investigator for the mission and an assistant professor at ASU, told the Washington Examiner.
But with more access to space comes questions of security. While the U.S. has one of the largest CubeSat markets, countries such as Russia and China are also rapidly advancing the technology, largely behind a cloak of secrecy.
Experts warn that an attack on U.S. satellites from a foreign adversary could be catastrophic. Any disruption could wipe out financial markets or render cell phones across the country useless.
“There is adherence to norms and good behaviors in space used by countries all over the world,” Safyan said. “Overwhelmingly the opening up of space has been used for really positive and collaborative purposes.”
This article has been corrected to reflect the number of CubeSats that have been launched in the past decade.