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Nanosatellites and their Demand for Changes in Space Policy

Conference Paper · September 2016


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M. Emanuelli Laura Bettiol

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European Space Agency


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67th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Guadalajara, Mexico, 26-30 September 2016.
Copyright ©2016 by the Copyright 2016 by Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC).
Published by the IAF, with permission and released to the IAF to publish in all forms.


Nanosatellites and their demand for changes in space policy

Matteo Emanuellia*, Laura Bettiola, Maria Grulicha, Juan Esteban Gramajo Gonzaleza, Justin Atchisona,
Laura León Péreza, Jordan Sotudeha
Space Generation Advisory Council, c/o ESPI, Schwarzenbergplatz 6, 1030 Vienna, Austria,
matteo.emanuelli@spacegeneration.org, laura.bettiol@spacegeneration.org, maria.grulich@gmail.com,
juan.gramajo@spacegeneration.org, justin.atchison@jhuapl.edu, laura.lnprz@gmail.com, jordansotudeh@gmail.com
* Corresponding Author

In recent years, thanks to system miniaturization and decreasing expenses in development and launch, the
nanosatellite market has grown exponentially. Concerns also grown over the unsafe practices of new actors, like
start-ups, universities, nongovernmental organizations and even amateurs supported by crowdfunding campaigns,
particularly in Earth’s most crowded orbit: low Earth orbit (LEO). Lawmakers and policymakers have been unable to
keep up with the rapid advance. The October 2016 Space Generation Congress Policy Working Group, with the
support of the Secure World Foundation, attempted to address the core issues surrounding nanosatellites. Over the
course of three days, 18 space professionals and students from 13 different countries discussed and debated issues
surrounding nanosatellites and in particular the long-term sustainability with the issues brought by future
constellations and mega-constellations. The Working Group produced a set of recommendations, presented at
UNCOPUOS in February 2016, including a specific orbital range for nanosatellites where short-lived craft without
debris mitigation systems onboard or potential onboard operational capabilities would have a commensurate orbit
lifetime. This paper will focus on a detailed definition of the recommendations and best practices necessary to
mitigate the space debris issue caused by nanosatellites’ poorly regulated deployment in LEO.
Keywords: (nanosatellites, policy, SGAC)

1. Introduction
This paper includes the results of the workshop that
was held in October 2015 in Jerusalem (Israel) during
the Space Generation Congress (SGC) organized by the
Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC), a global
non-profit organization that aims to represent university
students and young professionals to the United Nations,
space agencies, industry and academia. The
recommendations included in this paper were presented
at the Technical Meeting of the UNCOPUOS in
February 2016. Figure 1 Nano and Microsatellite Markets’ forecast
In the past 5 years, nanosatellite market has had an [2]
enormous development, exponentially increasing its
market share. In particular, the miniaturization of the 2. Definition
technology and electronic devices used in the spacecraft Considering the scope of this paper, nanosatellites
as well as the reduced costs for developing and are defined as satellites with a mass less than or equal to
launching them have made nanosatellites very popular 10 kg [3]. This definition makes also the final
among universities and amateurs, as well as among recommendations applicable to the current and short-
small companies and start-ups, that have launched and term scenarios. Nanosatellites can be launched
are planning to launch hundreds of nanosatellites [1]. individually or in a swarm/constellation, increasing their
The ease at which nanosatellites can be developed offers attractiveness for commercial purposes. In addition to
a significant opportunity to promote innovation and commercial purposes (usually related to Earth
increase the technology base of developing countries. It observation and internet connectivity), nanosatellites are
is essential that educational initiatives and commercial also preferred to carry technology demonstrators and
ventures be given access to space through a reasonable scientific experiments. Examples of companies that are
framework of regulations. commercially exploiting nanosatellites include Spire,
Planet and Sky and Space Global (SSG).

IAC-16-A6.8.7 Page 1 of 5
67th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Guadalajara, Mexico, 26-30 September 2016.
Copyright ©2016 by the Copyright 2016 by Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC).
Published by the IAF, with permission and released to the IAF to publish in all forms.

At present, the relatively small size of nanosatellite option of choosing the orbital insertion. In this way,
introduces challenges for long duration missions and for usually, the actual operational lifetime of nanosatellite is
space catalogue maintenance and tracking. That is, it is much longer than their permanence in space, resulting
not currently common for nanosatellites to have mission in a large number of inoperative objects orbiting the
lifetimes greater than 3-5 years. Moreover, their small Earth and threatening the safety of operational satellites.
length scales imply small visual magnitudes or radar-
cross-sections, making tracking nanosatellites difficult. 5. Interested Stakeholders
The stakeholders listed in Table 1 were identified
3. Current situation in orbit and considered in developing this paper.
According to a recent survey on nanosatellites [3],
the launch trend for 2016 is increasing exponentially, Table 1. Stakeholders
with 437 planned launches as of May 15, 2016. The Stakeholder Rationale
actually launched nanosatellites in 2015 were ‘only’ Existing Any recommendations ought not to risk
128, and 141 in 2014. The majority of the nanosatellites Satellite existing satellites or capabilities.
launched to date are divided almost equally between Operators
universities and companies, with a small number of Governments Governments are responsible for
nanosatellites launched by agencies, military, non-profit authorizing any satellite launches from
organizations, amateurs, etc. The US have launched their territory. This includes fault-based
66.3% of the total number of satellites, while European liability for on-orbit actions, intentional
satellites were 15.7%. or unintentional. Any recommendations
Among all the nanosatellites that were launched, 166 should reflect a government’s rights
were operational as of May 15th, 2016, while 77 were and responsibilities.
non-operational. This means that almost 32% of these Launch The launch vehicle provider accepts
satellites currently in space are orbiting without control Vehicle legal and financial burdens for their
and do not longer react to any commands. All these Providers cargo. Additionally, there are technical
nanosatellites are orbiting in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), constraints that limit the scope of
under 2000 km, which is the most crowded orbit region. deployment possibilities available for a
given recommendation. For example, a
4. Current Practices and Polices finite number of upper-stage restarts
Mass and dimension differences notwithstanding, may limit the number of separate
nanosatellites are currently classified the same way as deployment orbits available to a set of
any other satellite. Simply put, “a satellite is a satellite”. nanosatellites.
They operate in the same orbital regions, share the same Insurance Insurance companies have a financial
Radio Frequency (RF) spectrum, and they are expected Companies stake in the deployment and survival of
to abide by the same national and international policies cargo. Any nanosatellite
and laws [5]. recommendation should not
The Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination significantly increase the on-orbit risk.
Committee (IADC) released the Space Debris Universities / Many nanosatellites are developed and
Mitigation Guidelines, which have been endorsed by the Educational operated at universities and educational
United Nations (UN) Committee for the Peaceful Uses Institutions institutions globally. These are
of Outer Space (COPUOS) in 2008. In this document typically associated with student teams.
they stated that they “have found 25 years to be a The experience of a student team
reasonable and appropriate lifetime limit” for satellites successfully completing a CubeSat is
[6]. The cutoff altitude for a nanosatellite to deorbit in irreplaceable. However, typical
25 years is around 600-700 km, which is still in the limitations for a low-budget group of
LEO region [8]. students must be acknowledged and,
In order to keep the costs and complexity low, many possibly, the expectations for
nanosatellites do not have an active attitude control adherence to complex practices should
capability, and this means that also when they are be lowered.
operational, they can be considered a threat for other “New Space” A variety of new business models are
operational satellites not being able to change orbit and Companies appearing. These capitalise on the short
avoid possible impacts. This is a serious concern development time, economies of scale,
because all these satellites will inevitably increase the and cheap launch-cost associated with
amount of space debris in case of collisions. nanosatellites. Inasmuch as technology
Nanosatellites are often launched as piggyback or is a critical international economic
secondary payloads on rockets and they do not have the sector, the interests of New Space

IAC-16-A6.8.7 Page 2 of 5
67th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Guadalajara, Mexico, 26-30 September 2016.
Copyright ©2016 by the Copyright 2016 by Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC).
Published by the IAF, with permission and released to the IAF to publish in all forms.

companies should be accommodated. dialogue should be initiated immediately, so that the

Developing Nanosatellites are a first step for many conversation is prescriptive rather than reactive.
Countries developing countries to operate in These best practices should evaluate the
space. It is appropriate to consider this sustainability for the specified region(s) of most impact
access if introducing any guidelines. ensuring that short-lived satellites would have a
The guidelines ought not to introduce commensurate orbit lifetime, to mitigate long-term,
undue burden or restrict access to unsustainable debris issues.
space. In addition, it is recommended to propose the
establishment of open orbital regions for nanosatellites
that would be constrained to an altitude up to 400 km
6. Recommendations’ Principle (LEO), likely below human spaceflight operations, as
According to these premises, it is not possible to shown in Fig. 1. Locating the nanosatellite’s orbital
address the issue of increasing presence nanosatellite in regime below human spaceflight activities minimizes
LEO without taking into consideration three main any potential impact to the important human activities in
factors or principles. LEO. In addition to the International Space Station,
First, space and radio spectrums have to be various countries (e.g. China) and commercial
considered at same level as global resources that must enterprises (e.g. Bigelow Aerospace) are considering
be managed responsibly. As already mentioned, human space stations in their future plans. These plans
nanosatellites are not an exception, they require radio ought to be taken into consideration.
frequencies as every other bigger satellite. Therefore, Moreover, the practice could make clear allowances
the high amount of nanosatellite launches should be for satellites to operate in any region higher than 400
considered regarding these global resources. Any km of space. Such allowances might include
practice, even if legal, ought to address its impact on the consideration of the following:
current and future state of access to space.  Satellite deorbit capability, including active and
Second, the community of existing satellite passive means
operators should develop policies and norms that any  Anticipated satellite operational lifetime,
new satellite stakeholders should attempt to respect. including assessment of radiation hardening and
Third, nanosatellites offer many clear benefits to the redundancy
global community. They represent a significant means  Satellite operator and intent (e.g., developing
of encouraging innovation, education, science, and country conducting scientific experiment)
economic growth and therefore their usage should be However, these practices would be not sufficient
fostered, not limited. with current state of launches. Therefore, the
Based on these guiding principles, four actions are organization should also consider approaches to
recommended here with the intent of promoting a path promote the small satellite launcher market, enabling or
for sustainable, cooperative use of space between facilitating the dedicated regimes described above.
existing satellite operators and new nanosatellite Practically, where possible, governments and
operators. This path benefits all parties and, while non- international organizations should facilitate and
binding, still sets forth a worthwhile best practice for advocate for the sustainable development and regulation
satellite operators as well as nanosatellite operators. of new small satellite launch vehicle concepts.
The fostering of the small satellite launchers’ market
7. Developing Guidelines and Best-practices is consistent with current trends suggesting that a
An appropriate, cognizant, international organization number of commercial options are entering the market.
(e.g. UN, International Academy of Astronautics (IAA),
International Astronautical Federation (IAF),
International Institute of Space Law (IISL), IADC,
International Association for Advancement of Space
Safety (IAASS)) should introduce dialog, initiate
coordination, and possibly develop guidelines or best-
practices for nanosatellite operators and launch
organizations. It must be kept in mind, however, that
any specific agreement or guideline will likely be
accepted only on the condition that it clearly benefits all
of the stakeholders. Dialogue will be critical for
ensuring that each party is satisfied.
In addition, given that the number of nanosatellites
to be launched each year is noticeably increasing, this

IAC-16-A6.8.7 Page 3 of 5
67th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Guadalajara, Mexico, 26-30 September 2016.
Copyright ©2016 by the Copyright 2016 by Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC).
Published by the IAF, with permission and released to the IAF to publish in all forms.

provide a more precise insertion in orbit for

nanosatellites, avoiding piggyback launches to altitudes
unsustainable for systems without proper control or
deorbiting means.

9. Conclusion
The Policy Working Group at the Space Generation
Congress 2015 discussed the implication of the raising
number of nanosatellites against concern on the
sustainability especially of the lower LEO region. The
group acknowledged the difficulties of tackling these
issues especially taking into consideration the necessity
of avoiding restrictions for current and above all, new
players in the space sector, governmental, commercial,
Fig. 1. Proposed open orbital region academic or amateur. The recommendations of this
paper have been thought to preserve the rights of both
old and new players to launch craft in space.
8. Rationale
With the emerging nanosatellite market, an Acknowledgements
increasing number of well-known as well as new actors The present paper is the product of the work of an
are developing and launching nanosatellites. Market international and interdisciplinary team of 18 space
projections foresee that more than 1,000 nanosatellites professionals and students, who were part of the Policy
will be launched by 2020 [8]. A typical nanosatellite Working Group during the Space Generation Congress.
launched by a university or an amateur does not include We want to thank all of them for the great dedication
an attitude determination and control system (ADCS) they put in the discussion and implementation of the
that can avoid collisions with other objects in its orbit or recommendations. They are, in addition to the authors
deorbiting mechanism for a controlled re-entering in the of this paper: Sirisha Bandla, Emmanuelle David, Alon
Earth’s atmosphere. This poses a great risk to the Davidi, Leehandi De Witt, Matt Driedger, Chantelle
existing space assets, especially to the manned Dubois, Blake James Edwards, Suman Gautam, Eren
International Space Station (ISS) or future outposts in Gorur, Gabriel Lapilli, Milan Mijovic, and Caroline
LEO. Developing a new set of recommendations Thro.
targeted to nanosatellites is considered a “must do” for Special thanks go to our subject matter experts
the immediate future, in order to avoid collisions and Meidad Pariente (Spacecialist, Israel), Chris Johnson
mitigate the risk posed by space debris. The (Secure World Foundation, USA) and David Finkelman
recommendations in this paper include the (SkySentry, US) for their guidance during the entire
establishment of a specific orbital area, possibly below time of the workshop.
the ISS, where nanosatellites without the possibility of
being controlled from the ground or performing orbital References
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IAC-16-A6.8.7 Page 4 of 5
67th International Astronautical Congress (IAC), Guadalajara, Mexico, 26-30 September 2016.
Copyright ©2016 by the Copyright 2016 by Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC).
Published by the IAF, with permission and released to the IAF to publish in all forms.

[6] Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination

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