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GISCafe Special Coverage: The World of State-of-the-Art Satellites, Reusable Spacecraft and More

Both large full size satellites as well as small satellites are now being used for various purposes around the globe. In addition, constellations of satellites are being developed for specific purposes, such as internet satellites. We also include here maritime surveillance that relies on Satellite Automatic Identification System (AIS) payload.

We queried a number of providers of both full size and small satellites as well as AIS to get an idea of what was available in the market.

Large Full-Size Satellites

European Space Imaging’s Robert Philipp. technical project manager on the Customer Support team, does a lot of work developing automated software for handling very high-resolution imagery with DigitalGlobe, MDA, and Space Imaging Middle East. He previously worked for Planet as a senior satellite data processing engineer and system operator.

“At European Space Imaging we are working with traditional full-sized satellites with a mass between 2000kg and 3000kg,” said Philipp.

While the company provides access to imagery from full-sized satellites, Philipp could speak to the pros and cons of small satellites also.

Pros:

-“The launch cost decreases significantly with decreasing satellite size. It is possible to bring them into orbit as secondary rocket payload and even launch several at once per launch. The record here is 88 sats in one launch.

- Production cost of a satellite decrease. As with decreasing size, the complexity of a satellite platform decreases as well and the cost of one satellite decreases.

-The development cycle can be shortened significantly. As with decreasing size, the complexity of a satellite platform decreases as well and it does not take that long to develop a successor to a satellite platform. Can even be shortened to several weeks.

-The temporal resolution increases due to the fact that the smaller a satellite becomes, they are sent into orbit as constellations more often and can, in the Earth Observation Business, acquire data over the same area more frequently.

-Redundancy. If a Nanosat goes out of order, there are very likely dozens of others still functioning properly in the same constellation. If a launch fails, the loss is not as significant as with full sized satellites.

Cons:

- Due to size limitations, the complexity and performance of a small sats is much less compared to full sized platforms.

-Reliability goes down with decreasing size. Redundant parts within the platform are excluded to keep costs low and due to size limitations and energy supply limitations. Developing a Nanosat becomes more and more function follows form approach.

-The life expectancy is less. Due to less fuel, or even the lack of, stable orbits cannot be maintained as long. Also the smaller batteries do have less life expectancies.

-Energy generation is limited due to smaller solar panels.

- Operation of huge fleets of satellites becomes too complex for manual operation and automated processes have to be implemented. Developing all these processes and systems takes time. If the developing cycle is too fast, it is hard to keep up with the development of the operating systems.

-Huge amount of redundant data gets acquired and has to be stored somewhere. So a lot more storage space is needed.”

When asked what types of tasks would be best addressed by large and small satellites, Philipps said: “High Resolution, Multispectral, Hyperspectral and RADAR observation satellites should be left for larger platforms. As well as Relay satellite platforms. Low or Medium resolution monitoring sats can be smaller. And communication sats can even be smaller.”

For the future of satellites in general, ESI sees a combination of larger satellites for RADAR, high resolution multi- or hyper-spectral earth observation combined with small satellites acquiring medium resolution data in the visible spectrum. Both will be sending their data through large relay sats.

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Susan Smith Susan Smith
Susan Smith has worked as an editor and writer in the technology industry for over 16 years. As an editor she has been responsible for the launch of a number of technology trade publications, both in print and online. Currently, Susan is the Editor of GISCafe and AECCafe, as well as those sites’ … More »
GISCafe Special Coverage: The World of State-of-the-Art Satellites, Reusable Spacecraft and More March 15th, 2018 by Susan Smith

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Both large full size satellites as well as small satellites are now being used for various purposes around the globe. In addition, constellations of satellites are being developed for specific purposes, such as internet satellites. We also include here maritime surveillance that relies on Satellite Automatic Identification System (AIS) payload.

Hamburg Port Rathaus, European Space Imaging

We queried a number of providers of both full size and small satellites as well as AIS to get an idea of what was available in the market.

Large Full-Size Satellites

European Space Imaging’s Robert Philipp. technical project manager on the Customer Support team, does a lot of work developing automated software for handling very high-resolution imagery with DigitalGlobe, MDA, and Space Imaging Middle East. He previously worked for Planet as a senior satellite data processing engineer and system operator.

“At European Space Imaging we are working with traditional full-sized satellites with a mass between 2000kg and 3000kg,” said Philipp.

While the company provides access to imagery from full-sized satellites, Philipp could speak to the pros and cons of small satellites also.

Pros:

“The launch cost decreases significantly with decreasing satellite size. It is possible to bring them into orbit as secondary rocket payload and even launch several at once per launch. The record here is 88 sats in one launch.
Production cost of a satellite decrease. As with decreasing size, the complexity of a satellite platform decreases as well and the cost of one satellite decreases. The development cycle can be shortened significantly. As with decreasing size, the complexity of a satellite platform decreases as well and it does not take that long to develop a successor to a satellite platform. Can even be shortened to several weeks.
The temporal resolution increases due to the fact that the smaller a satellite becomes, they are sent into orbit as constellations more often and can, in the Earth Observation Business, acquire data over the same area more frequently.
Redundancy. If a Nanosat goes out of order, there are very likely dozens of others still functioning properly in the same constellation. If a launch fails, the loss is not as significant as with full sized satellites.
Cons:

Due to size limitations, the complexity and performance of a small sats is much less compared to full sized platforms.
Reliability goes down with decreasing size. Redundant parts within the platform are excluded to keep costs low and due to size limitations and energy supply limitations. Developing a Nanosat becomes more and more function follows form approach.
The life expectancy is less. Due to less fuel, or even the lack of, stable orbits cannot be maintained as long. Also the smaller batteries do have less life expectancies.
Energy generation is limited due to smaller solar panels.
Operation of huge fleets of satellites becomes too complex for manual operation and automated processes have to be implemented. Developing all these processes and systems takes time. If the developing cycle is too fast, it is hard to keep up with the development of the operating systems.
Huge amount of redundant data gets acquired and has to be stored somewhere. So a lot more storage space is needed.”
When asked what types of tasks would be best addressed by large and small satellites, Philipps said: “High Resolution, Multispectral, Hyperspectral and RADAR observation satellites should be left for larger platforms. As well as Relay satellite platforms. Low or Medium resolution monitoring sats can be smaller. And communication sats can even be smaller.”

For the future of satellites in general, ESI sees a combination of larger satellites for RADAR, high resolution multi- or hyper-spectral earth observation combined with small satellites acquiring medium resolution data in the visible spectrum. Both will be sending their data through large relay sats.

Afrin, Syria devastation European Space Imaging

Recently European Space Imaging supplied imaging to show more than half of an ancient temple near the town of Afrin, Syria that had been reduced to rubble most likely by a Turkish airstrike. 30 cm resolution image of the temple at Ain Dara was captured by DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-2 satellite on January 29th. The American Schools of Oriental Research Cultural Heritage Initiatives (ASOR) analyzed the data to confirm the extent of the damage. By comparing it with on-the-ground reports they were able to verify that an incident had taken place, and the exact parts of the temple that were damaged.

The Ain Dara temple is more than 3,000 years old and contains many stone sculptures of lions and sphinxes. Culturally the damage to the temple represents a devastating loss to the history of Syria.

“Interestingly, we captured a 50 cm resolution image on the very same day, but the 30 cm picture shows the destruction much more clearly,” said Adrian Zevenbergen, managing director of European Space Imaging. “This highlights how critical that extra resolution is for gaining a proper understanding of what happened here.”

By comparing satellite imagery collected over recent weeks the ASOR investigators were able to conclude that the incident most likely took place between January 20 and January 22.

In a similar case, very high resolution satellite imagery was used to ascertain the timeline and extent of damage to Iraqi heritage sites by ISIS in 2015, at Hatra and Nimrud. A European Space Imaging case study outlines that story.

In the arena of large satellites, Rocket Lab has successfully reached orbit with the test flight of its second Electron orbital launch vehicle, Still Testing. Electron lifted-off from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 1 on the Māhia Peninsula in New Zealand recently.

Rocket Lab’s Electron Still Testing launch vehicle lifts off from Launch Complex 1. (Photo: Business Wire)

Following successful first and second stage burns, Electron reached orbit and deployed customer payloads at 8 minutes and 31 seconds after lift-off.

“Today marks the beginning of a new era in commercial access to space. We’re thrilled to reach this milestone so quickly after our first test launch,” says Rocket Lab CEO and founder Peter Beck. “Our incredibly dedicated and talented team have worked tirelessly to develop, build and launch Electron. I’m immensely proud of what they have achieved today.”

“Reaching orbit on a second test flight is significant on its own, but successfully deploying customer payloads so early in a new rocket program is almost unprecedented. Rocket Lab was founded on the principal of opening access to space to better understand our planet and improve life on it. Today we took a significant step towards that,” he says.

The data from this launch will be used to inform future launches, according to Rocket Lab engineers. Rocket Lab currently has five Electron vehicles in production, with the next launch expected to take place in early 2018. At full production, Rocket Lab expects to launch more than 50 times a year, and is regulated to launch up to 120 times a year, more than any other commercial or government launch provider in history.

Still Testing was carrying a Dove Pioneer Earth-imaging satellite for launch customer Planet, as well as two Lemur-2 satellites for weather and ship tracking company Spire.

Rocket Lab’s commercial phase will see Electron fly already-signed customers including NASA, Spire, Planet, Moon Express and Spaceflight.

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