Interoperability, sustainability and cybersecurity pose challenges for small satellite sector

SAN FRANCISCO – Ensuring that small satellites can communicate not only within their own constellations but within a broader ecosystem is one of the primary challenges cited by Lt. Gen. John Shaw, U.S. Space Command deputy commander, in an Aug. 9 keynote at the 35th Small Satellite conference.

“If small satellites are talking with each other, it’s not much of a jump to say hey it needs to talk into a broader architecture,” Shaw said in a conversation with Pat Patterson, Small Satellite conference chair and director of advanced concepts at Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory.

Eventually, small satellites could offer a clear picture of what’s happening in space like Google Maps or Waze provide by fusing data from myriad sensors reporting their own positions. Interoperable small satellites could provide similarly valuable information on the overall space environment, Shaw said.

In addition, Shaw said the U.S. military is interested in exploring the benefits of small satellite operations beyond low Earth orbit.

Whether in small numbers or large constellations, small satellites are likely to operate both in geostationary orbit and even lunar orbit, Shaw said. “What does that look like?” Shaw asked. “How do we get there?”

Moving small satellites beyond low Earth orbit raises the issue of disposal. Satellite operators will need to ensure their satellites do not become “a navigational hazard as they reach their end of life,” Shaw said.

Sustainability is a growing concern since the number of satellites and the amount of debris in low Earth orbit increase rapidly.

“We should all register some level of awareness that as we continue to put things up in space, it is getting more congested,” Shaw said. “We don’t want to get to a point where” the amount of debris in orbit increases the risk of collision in space, he added.

Satellite developers and owners should be thinking beyond end-of-life disposal. Satellites should be designed to ensure they do not “fall apart when they get old or things happen aboard the satellites,” Shaw said. “Overall, the entire lifecycle the satellite has to be built with an emphasis on sustainability.”

Similarly, satellite operations should constantly consider cybersecurity.

“I hate to be a negative, but I think it’s only a matter of time before we see some of the same cyber challenges that we’ve seen terrestrially have some sort of manifestation in the space domain, whether it’s a ransomware attack on a commercial space system or some sort of infiltration of a command and control system of a commercial constellation,” Shaw said. “Those are those are significant threats we need to be focused on them.”

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