What’s Driving Smallsat Growth in GEO?

With small satellites or cubesats, there’s a tendency — even among satellite industry veterans — to think about their activities in Low-Earth Orbits (LEO) and Medium-Earth Orbits (MEO). But if SATELLITE 2020 has shown us anything, it's that the next big — or small — trends can come from anywhere.

At Tuesday afternoon’s panel, “Smallsats in GEO,” several relatively new satellite companies and operators said they are currently developing constellation systems to operate at high-level Geostationary (GEO) orbit, and relying on small satellite-specialized launch vehicles.

As most of the satellite industry knows, small satellites offer multiple advantages over their delivery-truck-size, large satellite counterparts, like flexibility, faster build-out times and lower-cost deployments.

“We use the term micro satellite — it’s not just about the mass, but the ability to fit alongside a traditional satellite on a launch stack,” said panelist John Gedmark, CEO of Astranis, which was founded in 2015. The company is currently working on its first mission: a dedicated satellite to bring low-cost internet to Alaska.

Moderator Andrew Penn, a senior associate at Avascent, said it was interesting that while “the economics drive you to grow bigger,” small satellites seems to stand against these arguments.

“[With] cost it’s not different from [other orbits],” Gedmark said. “[With] cost per bit, people are taking total capacity of satellite and dividing by on-orbit costs… they’re designing satellites to cover an entire continent but [only]…having all that capacity but filling half of it. When you remove that fill rate piece of the equation, you get the smallest cost per bit with that equation.”

Another advantage of smallsats is that they enable operators to get into GEO quickly, without having to invest in a large satellite, which can take longer to launch.

GapSat CEO Gregg Daffner said that his company’s business model of leasing satellites for operators for use in their orbital slots for interim periods of time enables them to test out expansion and assess their real-time needs without making a huge investment in infrastructure.

“Satellite operators often miscalculate when they need more capacity,” Daffner said. “They’re not sure how the market will play out. So if they can experiment with a leased satellite [in GEO], and see if they like that, they can [decide to] own a satellite.”

But there are still some challenges to deal with.

Jim Simpson, CEO of Saturn Satellite Networks, which was founded in 2017, focuses on providing traditional capabilities to as many operators as possible, so they can offer optimal coverage, for example, to countries that have dedicated spectrum.

“There are smaller satellites that can stack together but the problem is, whenever you’re dealing with a primary satellite, it causes complications,” said Simpson, adding that he wanted to maintain being a secondary payload in addition to offering capabilities such as satellites with 16-24 transponders or high-throughput communications.

Panelists also stressed the cost efficiency of small satellites. When it comes to cost per bit, “People are taking total capacity of satellite and dividing by on-orbit costs.” Gedmark said. “They’re designing satellites to cover an entire continent but …having all that capacity [and] filling half of it. When you remove that fill rate piece of the equation, you get the smallest cost-per-bit."

When it comes to cost per bit, “People are taking total capacity of satellite and dividing by on-orbit costs.” Gedmark said. “They’re designing satellites to cover an entire continent but [only]…having all that capacity but filling half of it When you remove that fill rate piece of the equation, you get the smallest cost per bit with that equation.”

Daffner nearly echoed his sentiments, noting that “when you say you get greater economies of scale when you build a larger satellite, what is the reality? What’s the take up rate? What’s the ramp up rate? One of the advantages of going small is you can do ride shares ... you’re just one of a number of entries doing co-launch.”

Also, he added, some of the small sats aren’t using components with up to 30 years lifetime. Having a shorter lifecycle than large satellites will give them even more of a competitive advantage in the future, when technology refreshes at an even faster pace.

“The idea of using [equipment] that might degrade faster, is not a problem with small sats,” said Daffner, “because an organization can do a better job of cycling out old technology, keeping up with new technological developments, and address new market needs”

The alternative is having “having the same hardware in the sky” and then trying to catch up with what is out there.

Gedmark said Daffner’s point was an important one. “If you look how launches are planned out, they’re looking at how to make money on years 13, 14, 15 … while that market used to work, it doesn’t work today with broadband internet,” Gedmark said. “the subset [of the market] is connectivity.”

Sytze Veldman, satellite and launch development manager of Ovzon, added that small sats enable customers to have backup coverage, when they are remote, and they don’t want to rely on capacity on the ground.

“We’re seeing this in Italy,” he said. “They’re starting to use [satellite-based] service for the coronavirus.” VS

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