Chennai: Niti Aayog Member Dr VK Saraswat has stressed upon the need for India to focus on small satellites and its related technologies, which would play a major role in the coming years. Small satellites (smallsats) is a generic term used to refer to satellites that weigh lesser than 500kg.
Speaking at an International Space conference on ‘Ushering the new era in Indian Space Sector’ he also pointed out to emphasize the manner in which major space players such as the USA, China and Russia were scaling up their presence in orbit. He said, “709 satellites were launched in the short interval between November 2018 and March 2020.”
Saraswat projected that 7,038 small satellites would be launched between 2018 and 2027, where most of them would be used for Earth observation, technology and telecommunication purposes. There are only 2,666 in orbit as of March 2020 and a three-fold increase is being foreseen by 2027.
Speaking about the way the space business is evolving, he said that reusable rockets (one-stage or two-stage) and small expendable vehicles were going to be of immense value, as there was tremendous growth in re-usable and low-cost rockets. He also made a mention of ISRO’s upcoming Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) which is aimed at this segment.
It is notable that the world record of launching the maximum number of satellites into orbit is held by the Indian PSLV rocket, which placed 104 satellites in orbit. Over 80 satellites carried by that rocket were owned by an American firm that operates small satellites for imaging purposes. It is such constellations of small satellites that are being touted as the future.
Small satellites make technology accessible to all, by ensuring it is affordable and it serves as a platform to test new technologies. While larger satellites serve multiple purposes, smaller ones can be made for a single-purpose and can reduce the complexity, cost and development time.
According to statistics shared by Saraswat, there were about 1,000 smallsats launched between 2012-17 and about 700 of them were Cubesats. Cubesats are an even smaller category of Smallsats that are cubes with dimensions in multiples of 10cm. However, Saraswat also referred to some challenges for the SmallSat category, in terms of new technologies for telemetry, tracking and command, besides network for ground and space segment.
Also, the Prague Declaration of 2015 showed the need for the smallest developers to adhere to international laws, regulations and procedures. There are also challenges in the domains of authorization, registration, frequency allocation, risk, liability, insurance and space debris mitigation.