Deep Space Industries discusses how miniaturized spacecraft are catalyzing the growth of the space industry, and compares the advantages of nanosatellites, microsatellites, and small satellites.
It’s estimated that in the last 50 years, more than 2,000 small spacecraft have been deployed into low Earth orbit. And for good reason.
Deep Space Industries frequently receives questions about the miniaturized spacecraft that are shaping the commercial space industry, the role they play in harnessing the solar system’s resources, and the “microspace approach.” And what exactly is the difference between nano-, micro-, and small satellites?
We’ve gathered the most frequently asked questions on this topic and have answered them below.
Question: Miniaturized spacecraft are leading the way in the utilization of space. Why do they seem to be the first choice for so many commercial space companies?
Answer: The miniaturization of spacecraft greatly reduces the cost of space missions, opening up new opportunities that would otherwise be too expensive. Small spacecraft will accelerate our use of space itself as a resource, enabling more applications and technologies.
That said, there will always be a place for large spacecraft, particularly for commercial and scientific applications requiring large power, optical, or communications apertures. The ultimate reason for choosing small spacecraft is cost. Launch costs are proportional to spacecraft mass, and are usually the single largest line item in any mission. Miniaturized spacecraft benefit from greatly reduced launch costs, as well as lower materials and handling costs, making them more affordable for a broad range of users and applications.
Q: What are some of the other mission benefits of using miniaturized spacecraft like nanosatellites, microsatellites, and small satellites?
A: In addition to greatly reduced launch costs and lower material costs, small spacecraft require simplified logistics. It’s much easier to handle a spacecraft you can pick up with one or two people than one that requires a 2-tonne ceiling crane, for example. And with small spacecraft there is a lower propellant mass for a given delta-v. Remember that the rocket equation heavily penalizes spacecraft dry mass. And when you consider the significantly lower cost of a miniaturized spacecraft mission, the risk assessment calculus changes. It becomes more comfortable to adopt what is referred to as the “microspace approach” – aggressive system simplification, robust design margins, and reduced documentation remove a lot of the overhead of the traditional “big space” approach, driving the overall cost down even further.
Q: So, how will miniaturized spacecraft help companies like Deep Space harvest space resources and industrialize space?
A: Again, primarily through reduced mission costs. Companies like Deep Space can afford to field more missions and bring newer technologies to bear on the problem of space industrialization faster, accelerating the growth of the industry. More affordable missions also mean more people launching small spacecraft, each of which is a potential customer for Deep Space technologies, as well as a potential future customer for our on-orbit resources. In other words, the stuff we bring back from asteroids.
Q: In the commercial space industry the convention for miniaturized spacecraft, from one classification to another, is not exactly agreed-upon. But can you give us a better idea of what nanosatellites are?
A: There are some broad generalizations about satellite classifications that can be useful for understanding but there are no hard and fast rules. Everyone has their own idea of where to draw the line. And even then those lines can be murky. That said, most CubeSat-compatible spacecraft would be considered nanosatellites. However, nanosatellite does not necessarily imply CubeSat. Nanosatellites are typically 1 to 10 kilogram in weight and are roughly the size of a toaster or a shoebox. With relatively low launch costs and rapid development, nanosatellites are good for technology demonstrations and some operational missions. Yet the amount and type of propellant is typically constrained, limiting the amount of delta-v these spacecraft can carry. And that’s one of the things Deep Space wants to change with its Comet-1 water thruster, providing nanosatellites with launch-safe, customizable propulsion capability.
Q: How about microsatellites?
A: These spacecraft can weigh anywhere from 10 to 100 kilograms and are around the same size as an average human newborn, a beach ball, or a briefcase. While they can often use the same technology as nanosatellites, they provide larger apertures for power generation, communications, and payloads. However, launch costs for these spacecraft are more than nanosatellites, yet are still significantly less than large satellites. And they can follow the same rapid development schedule as nanosatellites because their slightly larger size doesn’t fundamentally change anything about their design or construction.
Q: And small satellites?
A: Small satellites are going to be in the 100 to 500 kilogram range. Think beer fridge. These spacecraft are on the larger side, approaching “legacy” or standard large satellites. Launch costs become more significant with small satellites yet they can support large, high-power payloads as well as significant propellant quantities.
Q: Finally, how do these different miniaturized spacecraft compare in size to legacy satellites?
A: Legacy systems like the Boeing SES-9, Intelsat, the ESA Sentinel-3, and some geostationary communications satellites are about the size of a Cadillac Escalade and weigh up to 5 to 6 tonnes. With their solar panels and antennas unfurled they‘re more like a school bus.
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