Small satellites are considered to be one of the main drivers of the dynamic future space market. According to studies, more than 15,000 satellites are expected to be launched between 2021 and 2030. Approximately 90 percent of these will be small satellites - that is, satellites weighing less than 500 kilograms. As spaceflight is becoming increasingly commercial, it is also of growing importance for the German economy. Small satellites, which can be launched with small, modern launchers (microlaunchers), play a central role in what is referred to as the ‘New Space’ market. Since these small satellites can be produced in larger numbers and therefore more economically and faster than conventional satellites, they open up completely new possibilities for scientific research and commercial services.
From climate monitoring to modern satellite communications
The areas of application for small satellites include, for example, in the satellite communications segment, broadband connections from space via mega constellations, interception-proof and failure-proof data transmission, as well as the digital networking of a wide variety of devices (Internet of Things). In Earth observation, small satellites play an important role for a wide range of commercial, scientific and governmental applications. Here, for example, they can provide data and images for climate monitoring or disaster management. Small satellites are also very suitable for testing new technologies in space because they are standardised and available in different sizes and can therefore be provided quickly and in line with demand.
Support for universities and start-ups through the National Programme
German research institutions and companies have extensive experience and technical expertise in the field of small satellites. The National Programme for Space and Innovation has been supporting practical training in space technologies and engineering in general with a university small satellite programme since 2007.
In this way, the programme also indirectly promotes the establishment of small satellite start-ups. In the period up to 2020, 46 small satellite projects were carried out at German universities. In addition, by the end of 2020, a total of 39 small satellites had already been put into orbit, 25 of which were still active in the same year. This puts Germany in the lead in a European comparison of small university satellites.
The funding of small satellite projects at the universities was instrumental in the establishment of 25 permanent spin-offs by 2020. It is clear that the number of spin-offs has increased significantly in recent times and that the emerging companies were able to build up a high market value in a short time, in part due to the support provided by venture capital.
National Small Satellites Initiative for Research and Commercialisation
The further strengthening of Germany as a location in the small satellite segment is to be implemented via a programme with several focal points. These include holding competitions for the development of new small satellite platforms and for low-cost ‘ride-sharing’ opportunities, the targeted promotion of small satellite technologies at universities and Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) as well as start-ups, and the improvement of technology transfer from research institutions and universities to industry. In addition, missions for technology testing in space are to be carried out on a regular basis. With the increasing demand for small satellites, the establishment of capabilities for series production and the development of technologies to prevent the creation of space debris are also coming to the fore.
No-cost flight opportunities on German microlaunchers
As part of the microlauncher competition, the development of new, commercial launch vehicles for small payloads is being supported in Germany. The German Space Agency at DLR will be offering no-cost flight opportunities on a total of four demonstration flights to be carried out by these launchers. The small satellites that will take advantage of these opportunities will be selected by means of a Europe-wide competition. All tender documents will be published in the download area at the start of a new competition round.