100,000 satellites overhead: The new race to make access to space an everyday occurrence

The small satellite revolution is enabling a space economy in which participation is no longer limited to major world powers and large companies

Satélites alrededor de la Tierra
A re-creation of the many satellites orbiting around the Earth. Image from the European Space Agency.Agencia Espacial Europea

The first space race began as a bellicose and propagandistic competition. In 1957, when Americans heard the Sputnik signal, they knew that Russian missiles had their cities in their sights. In 1969, they must have been relieved when Werner von Braun, the Nazi who created the first combat missiles, allowed them to win the race to the moon with powerful Saturn rockets. The technological benefits of that confrontation are numerous and ubiquitous in the lives of people who would be lost without satellite guidance, but that initial impulse dissipated with the fall of the Soviet Union. Three decades later, with the revival of a chapter of history that some thought was over, a new space race has begun in which the great powers are once again measuring their prestige and their weapons. But this new race is going to have more participants: small companies and students and professors who make relevant contributions to the field from almost anywhere in the world.

Until 2013, Vicente Díaz and Miguel Ángel Vázquez worked making photovoltaic solar panels to produce electricity on Earth. The entry of Chinese companies left them out on the street and posed a dilemma for them. “There were colleagues who switched to gas and oil, but coming from renewable energies that was not what I wanted,” says Díaz, sitting at a table in a hotel in Malaga, Spain. At that time, the new space was being born, a metamorphosis of the aerospace industry stemming from technological changes that made it possible to build smaller and cheaper satellites, which could be launched on affordable rockets and made it possible to participate in the renewed space race from Spain’s Costa del Sol, thousands of miles away from Houston, Moscow or Beijing. Diaz and Vazquez founded DHV Technology, a company that manufactures solar panels to generate energy in space that now power over 260 satellites. They are also the organizers of the Small Satellite and Services International Forum (SSSIF), which brought together many of the key players in this new phase of the space race in Malaga, Spain, this week.

“When I started, if you wanted to work in this [field], you had to go to the U.S., but now you can do it almost anywhere,” says Jordi Puig-Suari, one of the fathers of Cubesats, a type of small, cheap satellite that defines this new era of more democratic access to space. “Before, being a rocket scientist [space engineer] was intimidating; it took big companies and big investments to launch a satellite. Now, satellites can be built with commercial elements, which don’t have to last so many years and even allow students to develop and launch their own satellites,” explains the Cal Poly State University professor.

Juan Tomás Hernani, the CEO of Satlantis, which specializes in Earth observation technology with small satellites for border surveillance and climate change mitigation, did the math for this new world. Traditional satellites are larger and need technology that will be around for the decades necessary to recoup such a huge investment. Now we no longer need to be obsessed with having such long-lasting technology, but rather concerned with one that produces the necessary results for a few years, enough to recover the investment before the technology becomes obsolete or the satellite stops working. At that point, it can be replaced by another satellite that incorporates new technology. An Earth observation satellite such as the Spanish Ministry of Defense’s PAZ weighs 1,400 kilos (3086 pounds) and costs €160 million ($173,384,000). Small satellites weigh around 100 kilos (220 pounds) and cost less than a tenth of that. Puig-Suari highlights the value of these satellites for defense functions. “Before, you could have a very expensive satellite that could be disabled by an attack. Now, there are constellations of small satellites that perform the same functions and are more difficult to override,” he explains. Some will not replace the others, but rather complement them and allow more companies to do business in space.

Fernando Aguado, professor at the University of Vigo in Spain and the creator of the first Spanish satellite developed under the CubeSat standard, mentions other space applications “that improve our daily lives in a lot of ways that sometimes people are unaware of.” The possibility of continuously taking images of the Earth has made it possible to improve the microcredit system that farmers use to finance themselves in countries like Kenya and India. With the ability to analyze the type of farm of a given farmer, it is possible to assess more easily and accurately the risk of a loan and speed up the granting process. Aguado also highlights the chance that this new space offers students like his — those “from a public and not very large university” — the opportunity to develop satellites and put them into orbit. Once inspired by the epic of reaching the moon, motivation now comes from the possibility of being a protagonist in space exploration, even if it is in more humble projects.

The Earth’s orbit, where there is a proliferation of small satellites such as those that Startical intends to launch to improve air traffic control and allow planes to travel closer together and more efficiently, is the new space realm, but in Malaga it was clear that the epic of exploring the final frontier continues to be a basic motivation for space engineering. Several representatives of NASA and the European Space Agency explained their plans to return to the moon, set up colonies and, from there, prepare for attempts to go to Mars. In this effort, state support remains almost everything, even if states then offer their services to private companies like Elon Musk’s Space X. “We concentrate on the difficult things, on getting astronauts there, building a base or a space station, and private industry can sell us services such as logistics or communications,” explains Carlos García Galán of NASA. One example, which was also discussed in Malaga, is ROXY, a project led by Airbus to produce oxygen from lunar regolith, an essential step for living on our moon. All this could make it cheaper and speed up the return to the moon, this time to stay, although there are aspects that are more complicated than six decades ago. “Now,” Galán says, “we could not tolerate the deaths that happened in the Apollo program, so we have taken more time to finish the Artemis II and III systems” with which humans will return to the moon.

Andrés Martínez is one of the people in charge of taking advantage of the potential of small satellites for space exploration at NASA. One of the projects he has led is Biosentinel, a shoebox-sized satellite that launches samples of brewer’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) into deep space to study the effects of radiation on living things and to learn about the risks of traveling to the moon or Mars. In Malaga, he jokes that it was good luck that the first launch of the Astrobotic company failed in its first attempt to reach the moon. The mission is part of the CLPS program, through which NASA seeks to make it cheaper to return to the moon by contracting private companies to prepare for a return there. “For the next one, it’s going to take a very expensive rover of ours,” Martinez says, referring to VIPER, a robot that will search for ice and other useful resources at the moon’s south pole. Odysseus, which landed Thursday, is the first CLPS mission to successfully reach the moon.

Construction of the moon base, where NASA or the European Space Agency will learn to live away from the Earth, will begin in the 2030s. What we learn in that decade will make it possible to say whether the dream of reaching Mars is really feasible. García Galán acknowledges that they no longer take it for granted, because there are lots of unknowns in space. When the first humans return to the moon, they will start testing systems to work without support from Earth; communications will have a 20-minute delay, so astronauts going to Mars will be on their own in emergencies. And they will have to learn to cope with less than epic but very significant problems, such as the nuisance of negatively charged moon dust that sticks mercilessly to everything. Meanwhile, small and large satellites will continue to transform the world. There are now over 8,000 in orbit, but by the end of the decade that number is expected to exceed 100,000. On Earth, the international political situation may slow down space development, which is increasingly driven by private initiative. But the opposite may also be true. The years in which space technology developed most rapidly coincided with the time when humanity came closest to destroying itself.

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