Space Industry Sees Success in Small Satellites
U.S. Air Force leaders havewarned for years that the military space business is due for a major shakeup as the Defense Department can no longer afford billion-dollar satellites and other costly equipment.
Althoughmost of the Pentagon’s satellite-procurement dollars continue to be poured into big ticket programs, companies expect to see a shift toward lower cost alternatives. Some are spending their own research-and-development funds on products such as smaller satellites that ostensibly would satisfy the Air Force’s demands for less risk and lower cost.
Putting up corporate funds to design a spacecraft and hoping that the military will buy it can be a high-stakes gamble, but some companies are betting that if they can make products that can be sold to military and commercial customers, their investment will pay off.
“Our customer expects industry to invest more. We have heard that message loud and clear,” said Daryl G. Pelc, vice president of engineering and technology at The Boeing Co.’s Phantom Works, in Huntington Beach, Calif.
Phantom Works made headlines this month when it unveiled a new line of satellites called Phantom Phoenix. Rather than design satellites for one particular mission or customer, Boeing decided to make a reduced-size “reconfigurable" spacecraft that could be used by both government and commercial buyers, Pelc said during a conference call hosted by Technolink, an industry group based in Los Angeles.
Phantom Phoenix satellites — which are still in development — are targeting Air Force officials’ demands for “disaggregated” space programs, an industry buzzword that means building constellations of smaller, cheaper satellites instead of big, expensive ones. Pelc said there is potential for “billions of dollars” of future business in this area.
Another company that is seeking to capitalize on the “disaggregation” trend is PlanetIQ, a joint venture by several space companies that plans to launch a constellation of 12 low-Earth weather satellites. The company is seeking a launch customer such as the Air Force or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.Anne Miglarese, PlanetIQ’s president and chief executive officer, said the government would save money by not having to fund costly weather satellites and, instead, buying services from industry.
Air Force officials said they areevaluating alternatives to traditional satellite programs, but that no decisions have been made. Several studies are under way, said Undersecretary of the Air Force Jamie M. Morin. “Studies are informing a series of future decisions over the next two to three years,” he said at a Pentagon news conference.
Richard W. McKinney, deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, said these studies are looking at ways to lower the cost of space missions such as missile warning, strategic communications and weather. “In each one of those, hosted payloads and disaggregation are means,” McKinney said. Hosted payloads — having government-owned sensors piggybacking on commercial satellites — is another emerging trend in the space industry.
McKinney suggested that these new cost-saving initiatives have yet to prove their worth in military programs. “The more important question is what capabilities you are trying to achieve,” he said. “In some cases those capabilities may not help you achieve the end,” McKinney said.
Although smaller satellites aimed at military missions — which can range from 200 to 2,000 pounds — are cheaper to manufacture, they could drive up expenses in other areas. “Buying more and launching more could lead to higher cost,” McKinney said. Whereas a military satellite can last 10 to 20 years, small commercial spacecraft might have a lifespan of less than seven.
Brig. Gen. Robert D. McMurry Jr., director of space programs at the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, told National Defense that he welcomes new ideas from industry. But he cautioned that the Air Force still has concerns about low-cost alternatives being “able to do the mission.” If more satellites are being launched, he asked, “Are we generating more debris?”
McMurry said the Air Force will seek to better communicate its needs to the private sector, especially in these times of budget cuts. In the past, "we were seeking more of what we already had,” he said. “Now we have to focus on what we really need.”
Photo Credit: Boeing Co., PlanetIQ