New White House Initiative Reflects Growing Government Interest in Small Satellites

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Publication date: 
27 October 2016

Last week, the White House announced a new initiative promoting public-private partnerships for the development and use of small satellites. The announcement comes as interest grows in using small satellites as platforms for scientific research.


Three CubeSats being deployed from the International Space Station this past May. One of these was developed by a team at the St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, Va.

Three CubeSats being deployed from the International Space Station this past May. One of these was developed by a team at the St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington, Va.

(Image credit – NASA)

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On Oct. 21, the White House announced a new initiative called “Harnessing the Small Satellite Revolution.” To promote public-private partnerships in the use of small satellites, or “smallsats,” the initiative collects together a series of recent and planned federal government activities. Specifically:

  • NASA will propose up to $5 million for smallsat technology development and $25 million for the purchase of commercial data for its Earth Science Division, and it will undertake a “comprehensive review” of its missions to determine if any could be more effectively accomplished using smallsats. The agency will also open a Small Spacecraft Virtual Institute at its Ames Research Center in California in early 2017 to facilitate and promote sharing of smallsat technical knowledge.
  • Last month, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded two contracts totaling over $1 million to obtain commercial smallsat data.
  • The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) has awarded a $20 million contract to Planet, a startup company, to provide imagery of the Earth’s surface. NGA has also partnered with the General Services Administration to create a Commercial Initiative to Buy Operationally Responsive GEOINT (CIBORG), which will facilitate the purchase of data and related commercial services.
  • The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity is releasing satellite datasets as part of two prize challenges for analysis of overhead imagery.
  • The Department of Commerce is elevating the status of its Office of Space Commerce to reflect the growing importance of the commercial space industry, and to help government agencies take full advantage of new capabilities, including smallsats.

In contrast with other major government technology initiatives, the smallsat initiative proposes no new funding streams or coordinating mechanisms. However, it does reflect a growing interest across the government in advancing—and taking advantage of—progress in smallsat technology.

White House and congressional enthusiasm meets caution at agencies

In its announcement, the White House anticipates that government investment in smallsats can help jump start a virtuous cycle of innovation, remarking that, using smallsats, “Scientists and engineers can more quickly test their systems on orbit, allowing them to devise new, better systems more quickly, shortening the cycle of innovation and finally bringing ‘Moore’s Law’ to space.”

Congress has also shown a strong interest in smallsats as part of its broader push to integrate government space activities with services provided by a burgeoning commercial space industry.

Agencies, though, have been wary of jumping into new ventures prematurely. In March, for instance, NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan testified before the House Science Committee that commercial providers have not yet shown that their data from smallsats can meet the exacting requirements of the National Weather Service. Similarly, SpaceNews reports that on Oct. 20 David Hardy, the U.S. Air Force’s associate deputy under secretary for space, remarked to the annual Hosted Payload and Smallsat Summit that smallsats are not currently suitable for military applications.

Nevertheless, agencies have been developing strategies for moving forward. For instance, the contracts that NOAA awarded last month will serve as a test case to determine whether or not it is feasible to use commercial data for weather forecasting. Under the contracts, the firms GeoOptics and Spire Global will supply NOAA with radio occultation data from global navigation system smallsats by April 2017. The agency will then analyze the data’s quality and release its report on the test buy early in fiscal year 2018.

Interest growing in CubeSats as tools for scientific research

While federal agencies have been cautious in embracing commercial smallsat services for critical activities, they have also been active in developing smallsats’ potential, including as platforms for scientific research and technological innovation.

NASA defines spacecraft as “small” if they weigh less than 180 kg, but some of the smallest satellites under development—so-called femtosatellites and “ChipSats”—weigh only between one and ten grams and are designed to operate in “swarms.” Currently, a great deal of attention is focused on CubeSats, which weigh about a kilogram and have a standardized design, facilitating their use as routine tools of science.

In 2008, the National Science Foundation’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences established a CubeSat program, and issued a progress report on projects funded through it in 2013. In 2010, NASA established a CubeSat Launch Initiative (CSLI) to select and facilitate the launch of promising CubeSat projects funded and developed by universities and other organizations.

Projects selected for launch via CSLI are rated based on their anticipated contributions to scientific, technological, and educational objectives. While NASA is interested in the results of the projects themselves, an overarching goal of CSLI is to open satellite technology to a broader community of users. In 2014, NASA resolved to select CubeSats proposed by teams based in each of the 50 states within five years, and earlier this year a CubeSat developed at a primary school was deployed from the International Space Station. The agency is currently running a competition called the Cube Quest Challenge to encourage and assist innovative CubeSat work.


A map of states where CubeSat teams have successfully proposed a project for launch through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative.

A map of states where CubeSat teams have successfully proposed a project for launch through NASA’s CubeSat Launch Initiative. 

(Image credit – NASA)

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Meanwhile, interest has also grown in CubeSats as a tool to be incorporated into agencies’ research strategies. Notably, NASA has begun directly funding CubeSat missions, such as the Miniature X-ray Solar Spectrometer (MinXSS), which deployed in May.

Also in May, a study committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a report on the scientific potential of CubeSats. The committee observes that, while most CubeSat missions currently serve commercial and technology development ends, CubeSats are already producing “high-value science,with scientific applications likely to multiply in coming years. The report offers a series of recommendations to NSF and NASA for developing and managing research-oriented CubeSat programs. Coincidentally, on Oct. 3 the chair of the study committee, Thomas Zurbuchen, an astrophysicist specializing in solar and heliospheric research, became the new head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

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