Small, lower cost satellites are beginning to gain traction among intelligence agencies, says a top industry executive.
National security agencies are steadily testing out more small satellites before committing to new constellations of the lower-cost alternatives, according to Bill Gattle, the president of Space and Intelligence Systems at the Harris Corporation.
“We’re seeing a lot more acceleration, certainly in the intelligence community, on their willingness to adopt it. We’ve certainly seen some things out of Army,” said Gattle, a former program director of terrestrial communications and director of engineering for defense programs at the Pentagon. “It’s moved from ... customers being intrigued to believing it’s worthy of a demo.”
Small satellites are typically no bigger than a refrigerator and weigh less than 180 kilograms, according to a NASA fact sheet. By comparison, some of the largest satellites are the size of a school bus. The reduced size means small satellites are typically cheaper but less capable than their larger counterparts. To make up for that gap, small sats can be launched in a constellation of tens or even hundreds of satellites, networked together, making the entire system more resilient if one goes offline.
At the beginning of 2018, Harris had three customers for its small sats. A year later, it has five government customers under contract for 17 small satellites. One of those is for an Army communications satellite, Gattle said, though the company could not provide additional details.
That doesn’t mean there’s been universal acceptance. Even Gattle acknowledges there are hurdles the small satellite industry needs to overcome to see sustained growth in the military and intelligence market.
“How do you get the data quickly from the satellite to the war fighter who needs it?” Gattle said. “It doesn't help you to know a missile landed five minutes ago. You have to have the timeline be very quick and you need need a communications backbone ... which will be pivotal to how fast this grows.”
Gattle also talked about the launch of Harris’ first small satellite last month, how the company is going on a hiring spree and what 2019 has in store for the industry.
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