Nanosatellites will change the rules of the game in the space arena

At the NANOSAT project workshop “Exchange of best practices, impact on education, innovation, space outreach”, nearly one third of leading European nanosatellite actors (incl ISIS, Gomspace. NanoSpace, Berlin Space Technologies etc) together with science people, who can already look back on proven nanosatellite flight heritage from their universities, gathered in Copenhagen, Nov 7th. In addition, representatives from ESA and EC took part in lively discussions as well.


During the morning session Luca Maresi from ESA, spoke about major challenges and opportunities for nanosatellites from the perspective of the European Space Agency. His presentation was followed by Prof Jean Muylaert, Von Karman Institute /QB-50, who underlined the importance of nanosatellites as a scientific platform. Thereafter, Jeroen Rotteveel, CEO of the successful spin-off company from Delft University, ISIS – Innovative Solutions In Space BV, gave an inspiring speech, how they have responded to the already decade-long boom of cubesats.

Mr Rotteveel highlighted the very special role of SME`s to change the  rules of the game in the space arena. Large System Integrators have used nanosatellites, not to make a business case based on them, but rather to use nanosatellites as technology test beds. Instead, SME’s are leading the way on all levels – Pumpkin, ClydeSpace, ISIS, GomSpace, BST, BCT, Tyvak and others have focused on nanosatellite solutions, many SME’s already provide components and subsystems as part of their product portfolio. SME`s have found it easy to cooperate with academics and research as the new generation of these space entrepreneurs have come from universities themselves.

After having heard the success story of ISIS, which in turn was born in Denmark 2005 during Space Technology Education Conference (STEC), Jens Dalsgaard Nielsen from Aalborg University, gave an overview, how nanosatellites have had an impact on education and space outreach. Leader of ESTCube-1, Mr Mart Noorma from Tartu University ended plenary session. Mr Noorma introduced preliminary results of NANOSAT survey, which was carried out among the players in nanosatellite community. The survey did show the very rapid increase in activities and furthermore the change from educational “for fun” cubesats to real missions. Preliminary results indicate clearly that nanosatellites are constantly becoming a more and more serious alternative to larger missions which carry higher costs.

The afternoon session was devoted around discussions, about what the major issues are, which obstacles hinder nanosatellite´s development in Europe and what could be appropriate measures to nurture the growth of nanosatellites in coming years (what ESA and EC could do in order to give a support).

Among the threats, it was highlighted that nanosatellites may become too expensive as there is a trend to squeeze as many capabilities as possible into a tiny little box. This situation might lead to enormous development costs, which would result in higher prices for customers, who finally won`t buy the derived product or service. In these circumstances, nanosatellites are competing with microsatellites, which offer much higher capabilities at the same or even lower cost. Thus, the main driver behind the nanosatellite market growth is development cost rather than launch cost itself.

With respect to the future trends in space markets, participants stressed the fact that we are moving towards the state, where quantity will replace quality. Optical apertures cannot be made larger and still be launched in one piece on board a single spacecraft. At the same time, as it was expressed during discussion, it is possible to build and send 50 nanosatellites around the Moon doing radio astronomy comparing to thousands of antennas through interferometry.

So far, successful business models have already emerged in the defence domain. As access to space becomes more affordable all the time and in order to open up the eyes of ordinary citizens, we would need to see evolvement of business models like NanoSatisfi, which could bring the magic of space science and exploration to everyday individuals and organisations and empower tomorrow’s explorers or simply send an SMS from space.

Nanosatellites can be used to try new things and/or fail because they are less expensive. In this context, it is not always reasonable to spend money only on things that would work and which in turn will result in only incremental progress in terms of innovation. It was recommended, that ESA would probably need to start a dedicated program on nanosatellites.

Next workshops and roundtables with ESA and EC will continue discussions, what could be the future nanosatellite missions for Europe from 2015 and onwards.