Tiny satellites are diffusing remote sensing capabilities around the world

The Americans have reconnaissance satellites. The French, Belgians, Spanish, and Greeks share some reconnaissance satellites. The Russians have their reconnaissance satellites. The Ukrainians have Google Earth. It’s not the same thing, but right now, it the best they’ve got. But as technology and the market are developing, countries in Ukraine’s position are actually getting their own satellites. They may soon be much better placed to defend themselves, but the builders of ‘big space’ may find themselves scrambling to defend the lower end of their market positions.

The problem for Ukraine today is that the Washington is reluctant to share intelligence with Kyiv, for fear that details of American technical capabilities may make their way to Moscow through Russian sympathizers. So while the Ukrainian Army can see the ‘little green men’ of Spetsnaz in Sloviansk and Donetsk, it can’t see enough of the tens of thousands of Russian armored troops waiting to the east. It could buy relatively recent imagery from Digital Globe or Airbus Space, but even single frames can be expensive. Large volumes of on-demand, up-to-date satellite imagery could help immensely.

That day may be coming, as countries around the world are increasingly getting into the space business. In the last seven years, twenty-one countries, never before in space, have launched small satellites. Several US states have launched their own satellites, and Alaska even has its own state-owned launch complex. In the last two years, five private companies have formed to launch small satellites. Quite to purpose, for example, the Fuerza Aerea Colombiana recently contracted with a university in Bogotá to build a small observation satellite.

These are hardly Keyhole birds. The ‘fast-sat’ concept is generally a tiny orbiter built without serious radiation hardening, and designed to last perhaps twelve weeks in space. As they are launched from under an aircraft, schedule becomes more a matter of customer concern than cost. When has that happened in space?

In theory, these fast-sats will offer pop-up capabilities for even well-resourced military forces. On-demand launch from any accessible large airfield will allow satellites to help hunt mobile missile launchers, pirates motherships, and a host of other time-sensitive quarry. More launches will mean more programs, with shorter cycles of innovation. Nascent space forces around the world will thus be able to launch, observe, tinker, and launch again. Small flotillas of satellites with disaggregated functions will offer a much more robust defense against any eventual interference from the ground. 

And it will all be great fun until Hezbollah launches its own satellite. 

At that point, expect angry congressional hearings into Who Lost Space. Of course, none of this should be surprising. NASA already has its own FASTSAT (the Fast, Affordable, Science and Technology Satellite, to force an acronym) as a testbed. True to form, it was launched for the feds by the State of Alaska. But the rogue not-quite-state with his own Sputnik will be surprising all the same. These tiny satellites-on-demand are a brilliantly disruptive application of an old technology, and established players often do not readily spot truly disruptive change. For some time, big has been a big cultural issue in the US space enterprise, as solutions are often sized for existing infrastructure. The US government and US industry need to be aware of what is becoming possible at tiers below their usual product categories.

Facing a classic innovator’s dilemma, Air Force Space Command has taken an important intellectual step, issuing a white paper on how much more resilient disaggregated satellite architectures could be. Rather than just a threat, developing flotilla strategies for space missions could prove a new opportunity for US industry and government. Plenty of countries beyond Ukraine have problems from border security to resource management. At least a few countries care little about what the little satellite is doing, as long as a space program enhances the government’s prestige. Assisting in the development and launch of micro-satellites could thus help shore up US leadership and prestige in space, rather than purely ceding it to multitudinous actors around the world. 

James Hasik is a senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.