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Smaller Satellites (SmallSats and CubeSats) and Low Earth Orbit Revolutionize Telecommunications, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Until recently, satellites orbiting the Earth were large, heavy craft.  In recent years, however, a growing fleet of smaller satellites has been launched, ranging from the size of kitchen refrigerators down to golf balls.  These relatively tiny SmallSats have an exponentially growing number of uses and, thanks to their miniaturization coupled with rocket technology innovation, are far cheaper to launch and maintain than ever before.  A class of the smallest SmallSats are called CubeSats, which, according to NASA, refers to a class of nanosatellites that use a standard size and form factor.  The standard CubeSat size uses one standard module or unit (“1U”) measuring 10x10x10 centimeters, and is extendable to larger sizes; 1.5, 2, 3, 6 and even 12U.  They are particularly easy to launch because they have electronic and physical interfaces that allow 1U modules to stack together in a dispenser that increases payload in a rocket, sometimes called a “secondary payload.”  CubeSats were originally developed in 1999 by California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly) and Stanford University to provide a platform for education and space exploration.
Satellites of all sizes are being streamlined to rely more on 3-D printing which saves manufacturing costs and increases orbit efficiency.  For example, Boeing Co. is incorporating 3-D printing in the development of its Phoenix satellites.

Internet Research Tip:  CubeSats

     Some of the uses for these new baby satellites include gathering weather data to aid farmers, transportation and logistics firms, and disaster relief workers.  Environmental impact data can be used by government agencies to monitor deforestation, polar icecap and ocean changes over time.  Satellites are also bringing internet service to all parts of the globe, including rural areas that other providers cannot reach.
SmallSats promise vast increases in cost-efficiency, utility and flexibility.  Today’s state-of-the-art satellites feature computer circuitry that can be reprogrammed from the ground, on an as-needed basis.  This is a vast improvement over traditional satellites.  SmallSats are easier and faster to manufacture as well.
Thanks to advanced technologies and miniaturization, today’s tiny satellites are much lighter in weight than former generations.  This means that a launch rocket can carry a much higher number of satellites in one payload.  This is important, because launch costs are one of the major investments required in completing the tasks required to get satellites into service.  Entrepreneur Elon Musk, founder of electric car company Tesla, is revolutionizing satellite launches.  His SpaceX firm has shown that rocket bodies can be recovered and reused in a highly efficient manner.  His methods are slashing the cost of putting satellites into orbit.
Space launch firm SpaceX has its own system, called Starlink, planning to expand it to as many as 12,000 LOE satellites, and perhaps even more over the long term.  As of mid-2023, the company had launched about 5,000 Starlink satellites and reported subscribers in 50 nations for its satellite internet service.  Officials at NASA have stated concern over the potential of this huge number of satellites to cause space collisions. This firm, associated with Tesla founder Elon Musk, will have significant advantages, since it operates an extremely cost-effective rocket launch service.  Starlink’s satellites are deployed at three different altitudes.  Its satellites weigh only about 200 kilograms each.  A grouping of 60 of these units can provide up to 1 terabit per second of bandwidth.  In June 2022, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the firm’s request to serve moving vehicles including boats, airplanes and recreational vehicles, as well as commercial trucks and consumer’s cars.  This will open up a very broad new market.
A firm called OneWeb owns a system that may eventually encompass 648 low-Earth orbit (LOE) satellites.  This will drive down costs and improve performance in telecommunications and internet applications.  Unfortunately, after raising $1.7 billion and launching only 75 satellites, OneWeb took bankruptcy in the spring of 2020 during the Coronavirus pandemic.  It was quickly acquired, in July 2020, by the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.  As of mid-2023, about 648 OneWeb satellites were in operation.
LEO satellites are typically in orbit at altitudes of 400 to 1,000 miles and are used for telecommunications and internet access.  Because of their low altitude, the time required to send and receive Earth signals is shorter.  This can be extremely advantageous in many circumstances.  For example, passengers on cruise ships are dependent upon satellite systems for internet access, which traditionally has been much slower than land-based access.  LEO satellites are speeding up ship-board internet to the extent that movies, gaming and intense business applications are much more practical.
Cruise ships are perfect customers for fast internet access via low-orbit satellites.  Guests are encouraged to Tweet, Skype, Stream movies (using accounts with DIRECTV, Netflix or Hulu), connect with friends or play Xbox Live with gamers worldwide.
Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin is investing $10 billion to launch more than 3,200 low-Earth-orbit satellites between 2020 and 2029.  The network, called Project Kuiper, received FCC approval in July 2020 and promises to provide reliable, affordable broadband service to underserved communities around the globe.  Project Kuiper planned to have two prototype satellites launched during 2023 and hopes to provide service by late 2024.
Another company, Rocket Lab (, promises to use its Electron rocket to deliver SmallSats to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) at an unprecedented frequency.  The market for cost-effective, lightweight small satellites is growing rapidly.  By mid-2023, the firm had launched 163 satellites.

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