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Investing Big in Small Satellites

Federal Agencies announce more than $100 million in new investments to develop small satellite systems and technology.

This past October, the White House announced the “Harnessing the Small Satellite Revolution” initiative.  As part of the initiative, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and other Federal agencies identified multiple opportunities to encourage both government and private sector use of small spacecraft for a variety of applications, some of which were showcased at The White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh. 

Today, the White House is announcing $110 million in new investments by the Department of Defense and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to foster innovation in the development and use of small satellite (“smallsat”) technologies.

The U.S. Air Force is committing $100 million over the next five years to: demonstrate the ability to command and transfer critical data through commercial networks, safely and securely; devise and provide infrastructure to support a rapid payload prototyping approach for smallsat experimentation, with the objective of designing, building, and testing devices for use aboard small satellites in just weeks or months; and directly leverage flourishing “New Space” capabilities by entering into a public-private partnership with one or more commercial firms to augment key mission areas with a combination of smallsats and rapidly procured payloads, to include early warning and positioning, navigation, and timing.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will release an Announcement of Collaborative Opportunity (ACO) in January, 2017, to establish public-private partnerships offering access to NASA expertise and facilities to support commercial space technology development.  NASA will award up to $10 million through the ACO, which will cover topics such as Small Launch Vehicle Technology Development, Reliable Small Spacecraft Component Technologies, Low Cost Space Qualified Avionics and Electronics, Advanced Communications Technologies, and In-Space Propulsion and Transportation Systems.  Prior to the ACO, NASA will announce its selection of a company to build a series of small spacecraft for demonstrating a variety of technology advancements in orbit as part of the Small Spacecraft Technology Program’s Pathfinder Technology Demonstration project.

In addition, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) Office of Commercial Space Transportation plans to work with other relevant Federal agencies to identify less populated orbits where small satellites could be most easily tested safely and expeditiously.  FAA will also examine options for designating a domestic experimental launch range for small satellites and small boosters, providing access to affordable, on-demand launch via a streamlined launch approval process.

Small satellites have shown promise for affordably meeting Federal and commercial needs.  Developers and operators of smallsats and constellations of smallsats have demonstrated that they can support important commercial, civilian, and national-security applications, such as providing high-speed Internet connectivity to remote rural communities and transforming humanity’s understanding of the world around us with continuously updated imagery of the entire planet.

These smallsats, which can weigh anywhere from an ounce to as much as a few hundred pounds, are upending the status quo in space.  The same advances in electronics and communications technologies that enabled smartphones and put significant computing power in the palm of everyone’s hands are allowing scientists and engineers to design smallsats and coordinated networks of multiple smallsats that deliver novel and diverse capabilities from orbit, often at a fraction of the cost and time of legacy satellite systems.  Scientists and engineers can more quickly test their systems in orbit, allowing them to devise new, better systems more quickly, shortening the cycle of innovation and finally bringing “Moore’s Law” to space.

These new efforts showcase this Administration’s continued commitment to finding ways to support innovation, encourage entrepreneurs, researchers, and students, and push for the broad application of smallsats across our civil, commercial, and national security space communities.  The investments outlined above will help us deploy systems that complement and enhance the capabilities of our existing space infrastructure, save money and time—resources that can be invested in new capability—and, most importantly, invigorate a culture that thrives on embracing risk and taking chances in the name of progress and innovation.

Thomas Kalil is Deputy Director for Policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Senior Advisor for Science, Technology and Innovation for the National Economic Council.