The Race for Space: Challenges and innovation for small and large satellites

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Despite Covid-19 stalling the commercial travel and financial sectors, 2020 was a successful year for the satellite sector, driven by 1163 small satellites successfully launched into orbit – the highest figure ever recorded, according to the Small Satellite market intelligence report.

This is largely due to an increasingly competitive aerospace market that has undergone a shift in satellite development over the past decade, moving from the traditional GEO (Geostationary Earth Orbit) large satellite model (>500 kg) to a LEO (Low Earth Orbit) small satellite model (<500 kg). 

How is the market for small satellites developing?

Previously, the satellite market was driven by large satellite production being launched into the GEO orbit. These satellites are highly capable with sophisticated technology yet are costly and time consuming to manufacture.

The result is a limited launch of just a few satellites per year.

What does this mean for the aerospace industry?

Small satellite production has disrupted the space industry significantly. Small satellites being launched into the LEO orbit can be produced at a considerably lower cost compared to traditional larger satellites. With this lower cost comes opportunity for increased production rates, resulting in more new launches per year. 

Growth is so strong that strategy consultancy firm Frost & Sullivan expects a total of 20,425 satellites to be launched between 2019 and 2033, taking the small satellite launch market beyond US $28 billion by 2030.

With this growth comes incredible aerospace innovation.

Aerospace trends and the introduction of new players to the market

New players are entering the small satellite market at an ever-increasing rate, driving competition and technological development. To stay competitive, aerospace companies are reducing development, manufacturing and operational costs. In Price Waterhouse Cooper’s Main trends and challenges in the space sector report, the authors noted that already-declining launch costs are projected to decline by a further 40%.

These lower costs have opened the door for private companies to enter the satellite market, a space previously occupied by large companies.

According to the Small Satellite Market Intelligence Report, by the end of 2020 commercial companies captured 97% of the small satellite share, compared to academic and government entities, which held 2% and 1%, respectively. This continues the trend of the past decade, with commercial organizations playing a key role in the majority of small satellite launches.

How reliable are these latest satellite innovations, and the technologies that enable them?

To answer this, we must consider the lifespan and purpose of a small satellite.

Traditional large satellites are manufactured to the highest quality standards, with an expectation that a large satellite launched into the GEO orbit will remain operational for around 30 years.

Small satellites are launched into the lower LEO orbit, with an expectation that they will remain functional for about 3-4 years.

This has resulted in a shift in risk calculus from long-term returns on large investments to rapid renewal, according to Price Waterhouse Cooper’s Main trends and challenges in the space sector report. In other words, with small satellites we need to achieve a desired result faster than spending longer perfecting the solution.

Key technological advancements

Technology advancements in the small satellite sector are myriad, and include:

  • The miniaturization of electronic components
  • The use of thermal management adhesives

Thermal management adhesives are a critical component in the small satellite sector. With the miniaturization of electronic components and higher power output comes a substantial increase in heat generation. This heat must be managed through thermal management adhesives to avoid damaging the electronics on circuit boards.

The role and responsibility of material suppliers

Material suppliers are a key part of the supply chain. Small satellites are now flexible and can be fitted into multiple launch systems, reducing launch cost. And because smaller satellites no longer need to be ‘state-of-the-art’, they can be produced faster and more efficiently.

“Serial production and rapid manufacturing will play a pivotal role in meeting market demands. To ensure the success of the industry, it’s imperative that launch frequency, inventory and manufacturing capability are optimized,” says Prachi Kawade, a Space research analyst at Frost & Sullivan.

Sustainability is key

Another key aerospace trend is sustainability. With an increasing amount of space debris, and the negative effects of industrial materials on the environment, suppliers need to adhere to sustainable practices. Maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) is an essential requirement to ensure satellites stay airworthy, helping reduce excess debris in the process. In addition, satellites face extreme conditions (temperature,  radiation, etc.) and may need maintenance and repair services after impacting with debris in space.

Sustainable practices among material suppliers and manufacturers are vital to keeping aerospace accessible. This is because if we do not use space sustainably, the cost of using it will increase.

Looking to the future

Access to space is more affordable than ever. Suppliers must keep up with these developments, by providing innovative solutions with high structural integrity, excellent thermal and electrical performance, and high reliability – all in in a time-efficient manner. At the same time, it is imperative to offer excellent long-term product support to minimize risk for manufacturers, enabling them to forge ahead into unchartered deep space.

Henkel has both the experience and the portfolio of suppliers across the aerospace chain offering high structural integrity and better performance. At the same time, we, at Henkel Adhesive Technologies, are constantly assessing our portfolio to bring to our customers more sustainable material solutions.

These suppliers provide key items, such as electronic adhesives specially formulated to manage heat generated on circuit boards. The result is a more efficient manufacturing and assembly process, with greater long-term product support.

I’d really like to hear from you. Please do connect with me on LinkedIn

To hear more on the aerospace and space industry developments, including aerospace manufacturing and aerospace engineering, join our Expert Talks on Space Market: Challenges of Thermal Management Applications in Small & Large Satellites

About the author

Patric Scheidner

Corporate Vice President Global Head of Aviation, Space, Rail

 

Patric has been serving the chemical industry for more than 25 years.
He has mainly supported customers in Heavy Industries across four continents. His focus has been to develop customer-centric organizations and processes following continuous improvement methods, such as Lean Six Sigma. Being experienced in Supply Chain / Operations as much as Sales he fostered a culture of increasing customer value through the optimized combination of chemistry, process improvements, equipment as well as digital interfaces.

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