This last week my company sent me to do some hob-nobbing and research work at Space Dynamics Laboratory’s Small Satellite (SmallSat) conference for 2016. It’s an annual event the company hosts, going on thirty years now.
For those who don’t know what a small satellite is, there are a few different definitions, but let’s just say the satellite probably should be 500 kg (1100 lbs) or less. Some might even say 100 kg (220 lbs) or less. And because we work in a field of engineers and scientists, there are sub-categories of small satellites, such as nano, mini, micro–you get the idea. If you can’t measure it and categorize it, you can’t obsess about it, right? You’ve probably seen a small satellite and not known it if you’ve been following Planet’s or Terra Bella’s activities. Cubesats fall under the smallsat definition.
So small satellites are the focus of SmallSat. Entrepreneurs, government organizations, universities, and various companies from varying backgrounds get together to show what they can do, have done, and will do with the small satellite platforms. Technical sessions are running pretty much from 0800 to 1800, with people presenting, ideally, in 15 minute presentations. So people like me, research analysts, show up, hoovering up whatever data and information we can find about this industry. Blogs and space-centric news organizations show up for their stories. And there’s a lot for everyone to talk about. I won’t get into specifics, as that is what my ‘real-life’ job is for. If you want to find out that information, you’ll have to go to the Space Foundation’s Space Report Online.
I’ve been to this event twice before, both of those times as an employee of SDL. The difference between those times and the conference this year is striking, particularly the level of energy and activities going on in the small satellite community. Both were very high this year. The support industries for small satellites seemed quite excited about field products for small satellites, and seem to think there’s going to be a lot of growth in this field. The small satellite builders, both new and old, seem to be receiving lots of orders and interest for their products. Operations services indicated growth in telemetry and data requirements. The activities, services, and experiments conducted by, and proposed for, small satellites, seems to be limited only by the imagination (and limited launch opportunities–hopefully that’s fixed soon).
To my eyes, there appears to be a lot of opportunity here. There are those that moan we’ve seen this before, and that we’re in a bubble. But the circumstances propelling the interest and growth in small satellites are different–very different. And if it’s a bubble, is that really a bad thing? Even with the collapse of the internet bubble, I think things are better today overall than they were at the height of that bubble. And we’re not in a bubble yet. But it will happen eventually, as “irrational exuberance” takes hold in this industry too.
If I were in my twenties today, and interested in space, I’d be working hard on concepts to get my own start-up going, or working in a start-up to get the needed experience, and eventually move on. None of this going to NASA or the USAF for space operations nonsense. Those organizations have very focused missions, but as I’ve noted before, small satellites seem to bring out the imagination and healthy risk-taking of motivated individuals.
But as it is, I’m having tremendous fun learning from the very energized small satellite sector, chewing on the information, and writing about it. I’m thankful SmallSat exists to bring not just national, but international focus and energy together, to learn more, and for conference participants to strut their stuff. If you’re motivated enough, try to get a paper or two in.