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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

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.


  1. “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.
  2. 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.
  3.    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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


  1. Due to size limitations, the complexity and performance of a small sats is much less compared to full sized platforms.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Energy generation is limited due to smaller solar panels.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Small Sats

Small satellites (smallsats) is a term describing any satellite that is the size of an economy sized washing machine, all the way to a satellite like CubeSat that you can hold in your hand, according to NASA. They are generally of low mass and size, under 500 kg or 1,1000 pounds. There are different classifications to categorize them based on mass. CubeSats were developed by researchers at California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University who wanted a standardized format that was small and would enable students to get into designing, building and launching a satellite.


The classifications groups include:

Small satellites: those with a wet mass (refers to a measure of the efficiency of a rocket – vehicle plus contents plus propellant) including fuel of between 100-500 kg and 1,100 lb.

There are small satellite launch vehicles that are specific to smallsats and some that are launched as secondary payloads on larger devices.

Microsatellites have a wet mass of between 10 and 100 kg (22 and 220 lb). Other defining characteristics are that these may work together and also work in a formation, called a satellite swarm.

Microsatellite launch vehicles are being developed by military contractor and commercial companies.

Nanosatellites is applied to an artificial satellite with a wet mass between 1 and 10 kg (2.2 and

22.0 lb). These may be launched individually or work in formation and work in a satellite swarm.

Miniaturization is taking levels of capability to a smaller footprint and nanosatellites also are subject to new Nanosatellite Launch Vehicle Technology development.

Picosatellites are those artificial satellites that have a wet mass between 0.1 and 1 kg (0.22 and

2.2 lb), and again these satellites may work together or in a formation. They may require a mother satellite for communication with ground controllers as nanosatellites may do.

Femtosatellites applies to artificial satellites with a wet mass of between 10 and 100 g (0.35 and

3.5 oz) Again, some of these designs require a larger mother satellite to communicate with ground controllers.

In January, the first CubeSat developed under the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA)-Japan KiboCUBE Programme was handed over to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in preparation for its deployment from the International Space Station (ISS). KiboCUBE is an initiative that offers educational and research institutions from developing countries the opportunity to deploy cube satellites (CubeSats) from the Kibo module of the International Space Station.

On January 16, the team from the University of Nairobi, selected in 2016 for the first round of KiboCUBE, handed over the satellite it developed known as “1KUNS-PF”, or “First Kenyan University Nano Satellite-Precursor Flight”. to JAXA. The handover took place at the JAXA Tsukuba Space Center. 1KUNS-PF will launch to the ISS around March 2018, and it is expected that it will be deployed from the Japanese Experiment Module (Kibo) of the ISS with a robotic arm during the northern hemisphere spring.

“The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs is very proud of its partnership with JAXA to provide access to space for developing countries through the innovative KiboCUBE programme. The KiboCUBE Programme is bound to become a model of collaboration between UNOOSA and its partners to develop the capabilities of developing nations in accessing and using the benefits of space science and technology,” said UNOOSA Director Simonetta Di Pippo.

“I am pleased that the small satellite “1 KUNS-PF” developed by the University of Nairobi of the Republic of Kenya, which was jointly selected by UNOOSA and JAXA as the first KiboCUBE, was successfully handed over to JAXA. At JAXA, we are committed to making every effort to prepare for the successful deployment of the Republic of Kenya’s first satellite utilizing the unique capability of the Japanese Experiment Module “Kibo” on the International Space Station,” said JAXA ISS Program Manager Koichi Wakata.

The KiboCUBE initiative was launched in 2015 as a capacity-building initiative by UNOOSA and JAXA. After the selection of the team from the University of Nairobi for the first round, a team from the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala was selected for the second round, and they are currently developing their satellite. Applications for the third round of KiboCUBE are now open and close on 31 March 2018.

Dr. Robert E. Zee, director, Space Flight Laboratory (SFL)  in Toronto, Canada talked about SFL’s types of small sats. The Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) in Toronto, Canada develops nano, micro and small satellites for international customers.

In terms of pros and cons of the small and large satellites: Dr. Zee has this to say:

“Pros:  short development schedule, lower cost, potential performance advantage

Cons:   limited power, mass, volume, some applications may require larger satellites, acceptance by “non-believers” or traditional space people.”

Development costs depend on the organization. They could be sub-million to tens of millions depending on mission complexity.   “SFL missions are great value, i.e. performance and quality for the cost.  Others may quote low cost, but performance and quality may not be good,” said Zee.

“Smallsats can support all types of mission, but large sats would be needed for big apertures, big antennas or very high power demands.  The payload size and power requirements are what drive satellite size, not the type of application.”

Primary customers of smallsats include governments, companies, research institutions around the world.  Applications include but are not limited to science (e.g. astronomy, atmospheric science, solar science, space plasma), Earth observation, communications, monitoring (e.g. ships, aircraft, greenhouse gases, aerosols), and tracking.

Types of data available from smallsats include images, messages, measurements, situational awareness, etc.

Plans for the future of smallsats include, expanded application areas currently owned by largesats.  Commercial constellations for Earth observation and communications.

BlackSky Pathfinder-1, 2

Nick Merski, vice president of space operations at BlackSky, spoke about the “constellation of 60 earth-imaging satellites” that their company is developing. At the beginning of March, Global-1, the first of BlackSky’s new constellation of earth observation satellites, was unveiled.

“Customers of BlackSky’s global intelligence platform will be able to task the satellites to capture specific images as well access our archive of past satellite imagery. Currently, through the BlackSky platform, customers can access the existing network of commercial satellite providers and once our constellation is on orbit, customers will have the ability to access BlackSky satellites as well. This network of satellites offers the market a new capability that is unique (many new observation opportunities in a day) and is very cost effective.”

When asked about the pros and cons of small vs. large satellites, Merski said:

“In the case of BlackSky, we are developing a system that relies on many satellites to create a unique monitoring capability. The small satellite form factor is important. It helps us preserve many different, cost-effective launch opportunities. This is one of the most significant lifecycle costs when developing and operating satellites. Additionally, the volume constraints of smallsats necessitate that the designs do not become overly complex which can also drive costs up.

The other side of that same coin is that the small satellite form factor can drive challenging design trades. You may not be able to accommodate all of the capabilities that you want; or have to invest in technology development to miniaturize system elements in order to make all the capability you want to include fit.”

Merski is in agreement with other satellite developers in terms of what size satellite is good for what type of tasks. “Very high spatial resolution imagery collections (.5m resolution or higher). These types of collections require much larger optics, which require that the satellite and supporting systems are larger.”

Customers of BlackSky’s platform and ultimately, imaging satellites, use them for a variety of applications, including business operations, humanitarian efforts, environment monitoring, conflicts, natural disasters, and more.

“BlackSky’s constellation will be entirely made up of smallsats. We are focusing on affordable temporal resolution (many unique imaging opportunities / per day) and will be collecting images and video that are 1-meter resolution. We also partner with a number of other imaging satellites that offer different types of imaging and other complimentary remote sensing products to offer our users a full suite of capabilities to address their business objective.”

Future plans for BlackSky, according to Merski, include the following: “As a society, we are trying to utilize the unique vantage point that space provides us in our everyday lives. The desire to do this at scale, we will continue to push the boundaries of engineering in terms of capability and affordability as well as how we interact with the satellites themselves.”

Constellations are another way of addressing satellite coverage. Some companies take it a step further with plans for a global internet network, including SpaceX, Boeing, Samsung, OneWeb, and others that all have plans to launch their own satellite constellation over the next few years.

SpaceX announced one of its more ambitious proposals in 2015: a constellation of satellites in orbit around the Earth, providing internet access to everyone and everywhere. Their plan involved launching over 4,000 such satellites, which would form a network capable of transmitting anywhere.

Since the initial public announcement in early 2015, there have been news announcements such as an FCC filing in late 2016 and a proposal to start launching satellites in 2019. Now, it appears that SpaceX is ahead of schedule, as it launched the first of its test satellites on Saturday, February 11, 2018.

SpaceX’s plan is somewhat different than current internet satellites. Internet satellites today fly at geostationary orbits, over 20,000 miles above the Earth. SpaceX wants to put their satellites much closer, at around 750 miles, only three times further than the ISS. The closer satellites will allow for faster connection speeds with higher bandwidth.

Having closer satellites means that SpaceX is going to need a lot more of them, however. It only takes a handful of satellites parked in geostationary orbit to reach the whole world, but SpaceX is going to need a few thousand.

With the recent successful launch of the Falcon Heavy, designed and manufactured by SpaceX, and the advent of reusable spacecraft, putting 4,000 satellites in orbit might just be doable. It is derived from the Falcon 9 vehicle and consists of a strengthened Falcon 9 first stage as a central core with two additional first stages as strap-on boosters. This increases the low Earth orbit (LEO) maximum payload to 63,800 kilograms (140,700 lb), compared to 22,800 kg (50,300 lb) for a Falcon 9 Full Thrust, 28,790 kg (63,470 lb) for Delta IV Heavy, 27,500 kg (60,600 lb) for the Space Shuttle and 140,000 kg (310,000 lb) for Saturn V. Falcon Heavy is the world’s fourth-highest capacity rocket ever built, after Saturn V, Energia and N1, and the most powerful rocket in operation as of 2018.

The launch of Falcon Heavy put two test satellites, Microsat 2a and 2b, into orbit. These satellites will test connections with ground stations in Washington, California, and Texas, plus receivers in mobile vans scattered around the country.

If these tests go well, SpaceX could begin launching the first of its satellites later this year, with a functional, if limited, network in place by 2020. This initial network would include about 800 satellites and cover the United States. The company would then begin expanding coverage to the rest of the world.

Falcon Heavy was designed to carry humans into space beyond low Earth orbit, especially to the Moon, Mars, and potentially to asteroids for mining.

Maritime Surveillance

Since 2009, exactEarth Ltd. AIS data service providers has pioneered a powerful method of maritime surveillance called Satellite AIS (“S-AIS”) and has delivered to its clients a view of maritime behaviors across all regions of the world’s oceans unrestricted by terrestrial limitations.

exactEarth Ltd. announced the successful launch of an advanced Automatic Identification System (AIS) payload, exactView-8 (EV-8), aboard the Spanish radar satellite, Paz. The satellite was launched from the Vandenberg Air Base in California, using the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, owned and operated by Hisdesat Servicios Estrategicos S.A. The hosted AIS payload is owned by exactEarth and is expected to be commissioned in the coming months.

The EV-8 payload is part of exactEarth’s first-generation constellation and is the first commercial AIS payload which has been launched on a radar satellite. The Paz satellite was launched into the dawn-dusk sun synchronous orbit that is occupied by most of the world’s radar satellites and will be uniquely positioned to provide high quality AIS vessel data which is fully time synchronous with the Paz radar and near synchronous with Synthetic Aperture Radar(SAR) imagery from other radar satellites. Fusing these two data sets for enhanced vessel identification is expected to be an important element of future maritime surveillance capabilities as authorities can now rapidly correlate two data sources to identify non-reporting or non-cooperative vessels.

“We congratulate Hisdesat on the successful launch of Paz. The launch of our EV-8 AIS payload is a major milestone for our team here at exactEarth as we mark the completion of our first-generation constellation,” said exactEarth CEO Peter Mabson.  “When combined with the ongoing roll-out of our second-generation real-time satellite constellation, our AIS service offering clearly provides important differentiation and compelling value to a host of global AIS users.”




European Space Imaging


Rocket Lab

Space Flight Laboratory


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Categories: Big Data, BlackSky, data, DigitalGlobe, disaster relief, earthquakes, emergency response, geospatial, GIS, government, GPS, hardware, lidar, location based services, mapping, mobile, NASA, remote sensing, satellite based tracking, satellite imagery, sensors, situational intelligence, Skybox Imaging, small sats, spatial data

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