TMT 2020: SmallSats are Big in Logan, Utah
Fresh air, lush mountains and blue banners greeted an estimated 1,800 attendees to the 29th annual SmallSat conference in Logan, Utah this year. The conference, which is organized every year by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Utah State University, is a forum for space enthusiasts to discuss all things “smallsat.” Attendance at the event has grown considerably in the last few years, which is unsurprising. Smallsats are slowly changing the way many in the industry and investment community view space and space missions by, in large part, offering a vastly lower cost alternative to conventional satellites and providing opportunities for space access previously only available to governments and large commercial entities. Such changes are also introducing Internet-speed entrepreneurs and their investors to the slower moving, heavily regulated space industry.
This year’s SmallSat conference attendees included: faculty and students from academia; representatives from the U.S. federal government, such as the Air Force, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”); established satellite manufacturers, such as Lockheed Martin and Space Systems/Loral; commercial launch providers, such as Arianespace, ILS, Orbital ATK, and SpaceX; and entrepreneurs seeking to become a part of the burgeoning smallsat industry. Other attendees at the conference included two attorneys from Hogan Lovells. Although this is a first for the firm, Hogan Lovells is no stranger to the satellite business. It has been advising the commercial satellite industry since the 1970’s and, today, represents the full range of satellite businesses from established global satellite companies to leading innovators in the smallsat industry. Hogan Lovells has helped clients navigate through complex regulations and procedures imposed by various government agencies, including the Department of Commerce, Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Communications Commission, and NOAA, and has assisted clients in negotiating complex commercial and financing transactions.
For those unfamiliar with the term “smallsat” and “NewSpace” more generally, smallsats are small satellites, also known as picosatellites, nanosatellites, or cubesats. A basic, standardized cubesat unit, a 1U cubesat, is comprised of a 10 x 10 x 10 cm cube with a mass of approximately 1.33 kg. By contrast, a conventional geostationary orbit satellite can be as large as a school bus and have a mass of more than 1000 kg. A cubesat is scalable along an axis in 1U increments, and common configurations include 3U cubesats (30 x 10 x 10 cm) and 6U cubesats (10 x 20 x 30 cm).
The use of standardized formats and commercial-off-the shelf equipment as components of a cubesat greatly reduces the design and construction costs of a cubesat relative to a conventional satellite – tens of thousands of dollars (U.S.) vs. potentially hundreds of millions of dollars. Moreover, the size and mass of cubesats allows them to “piggyback” on launch vehicles as secondary payloads, greatly reducing the relative costs of launching cubesat systems into space – tens of thousands of dollars vs. tens of millions. Under certain NASA programs, academic experimental programs may be eligible to catch a free ride into space!
One industry attendee at this year’s conference was A.C. Charania, the director of strategy and business development at Virgin Galactic. Virgin Galactic recently announced the signing of a contract with OneWeb Ltd. to provide 39 launches for OneWeb’s 600+ smallsat constellation, which will provide broadband connectivity globally. A.C., a satellite industry veteran, has been attending the SmallSat conference off and on for nearly a decade, and noted the dramatic change in attendance by entrepreneurs in recent years. According to A.C., the atmosphere changed notably a few years ago – there was something in the air and “a certain swagger” in the crowd. That was around the time that Skybox Imaging applied for and received its private remote sensing (i.e. imaging) license from NOAA – the first step in a complex legal, regulatory process to demonstrate that the company had a viable business case. A.C. compares the current atmosphere and energy of the smallsat industry to that of Silicon Valley during the development of personal computers. When asked what can be expected in the future, A.C. suggested that smallsats will grow bigger and conventional satellites will become smaller, and somewhere in the middle could be an industry-defining, new form factor.
Mission to Mars
Although many of the conference attendees are now commercial entities, a significant portion of the attendees are still from government and academia. For example, Andrew Klesh, chief engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (“JPL”), a NASA facility located at the California Institute of Technology, presented JPL’s work regarding the interplanetary use of cubesats. Andrew is part of the JPL team that has helped design and construct twin communications-relay cubesats, Mars Cube One or MarCO. MarCO, travelling under their own propulsion systems, will accompany NASA’s Mars stationary lander in 2016 and relay information back to earth in real time. A successful MarCO mission could have a profound impact on interplanetary missions, much like the development of cubesat technology for the Earth-based satellite industry. Namely, verifying the viability of cubesat technology for deep-space travel could lead to shorter development timelines for interplanetary satellites and a reduction in launch costs for interplanetary missions.
Only time will tell the full scope of the impact of smallsat development on the space industry, but the future looks promising.
We look forward to attending next year’s conference and hope to see you there (August 6-11, 2016). One bit of advice for those attending for the first time, book your hotel room early! Also, don’t forget to use #SmallSat2016!
Hogan Lovells is a full service, international law firm with extensive experience in the satellite industry. See, e.g., Hosted Satellite Payload Procurement: A Brief "How-To" Guide and Satellite Systems Procurement: A Brief “How-To” Guide. Because of the depth and diversity of our experience, lawyers in this practice group bring to bear a deep understanding of the different legal and business issues that entities face in this industry, enabling us to identify and solve problems in creative and cost-effective ways. If you need assistance in any such matters, please feel free to contact us.
 Hogan Lovells co-sponsored the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2015 event in Silicon Valley earlier this summer. Partner John Booher, who assists start-ups with private equity and capital transactions, moderated a panel at the conference.