Unless you’re a techno geek or involved in the aerospace industry, you probably haven’t heard that the largest small satellite conference in the world takes place in Logan every August.
Consider it the biggest small conference most Utahns have never heard about. Nonetheless, it’s a huge deal, says Dr. Pat Patterson, chairman of the annual AIAA/USU Conference on Small Satellites.
“The average Utahn may not know that Utah State University has been home to world’s largest small satellite conference for 28 years, but there is an enormous percentage of people in the global small satellite industry that have either heard about or attended the conference,” he says. “People in the industry are keen on knowing what goes on here.”
Evidence of the conference’s success? Just try to book a hotel room in Logan, Tremonton or Brigham City from Aug. 2-7, when the conference takes place. Most of the 1,200 attendees from 33 countries and about 400 different organizations have likely booked their hotels a year in advance. During the conference they’ll spread out in Utah State University’s Taggart Student Center for a variety of technical sessions and a trade show featuring more than 100 booths. Attendees include representatives from NASA and the European Space Agency and many of the global companies that support those organizations. They’ll be in Logan this year to learn about “The Commerce of Small Satellites,” which is the 2014 theme.
The primary markets for small satellites are within military, civil/commercial remote sensing and civil/commercial communication applications. According to a 2012 report by Futron Corporation, world satellite industry revenues totaled $177.3 billion in 2011, while overall space industry revenues totaled $289.8 billion and global telecommunications industry revenues totaled $4.23 trillion. The satellite industry is a subset of both the space and telecommunications industries and is growing at a faster rate.
“This year’s conference will look at the exciting entrepreneurial endeavors that are enabled by small satellites, including the technical and business challenges of this worldwide phenomenon,” says Patterson.
Opportunity, demand and emerging markets have sparked the imagination of entrepreneurs seeking to capitalize on the reality of small satellites to develop new businesses or government services. Supporting these exciting endeavors is increasingly available investment funding from many sources such as high-tech venture capital firms, angel investors and even crowd-sourcing, he explains. The new funding sources have allowed innovative companies, government administrators and researchers from within the small satellite community to aggressively pursue diverse concepts such as providing low-cost remote sensing data products at unprecedented revisit rates, prospecting near-Earth asteroids for precious mineral deposits and manifesting novel sensors as hosted payloads.
Proving there must be big money and big opportunities in small satellites, Google purchased Skybox Imaging for $500 million. “That’s a big deal,” Patterson notes. “Skybox Imagery is a commercial venture building small satellites in the 150-200 pound range that will likely transform Google Maps. Skybox will eventually image the entire Earth three times a day at very high resolution.”
Keynote speaker Steve Jurvetson, a partner in the venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, is one of the commercial space industry’s most successful investors. He serves on the boards of Planet Labs, SpaceX, Synthetic Genomics and Tesla Motors and was the founding VC investor in Hotmail and the public companies Interwoven, Kana and NeoPhotonics. A self-described techno geek, Jurvetson is looking for financial returns from small satellite systems and as this year’s keynote speaker will highlight how he came to the conclusion that investing in the small satellite arena is a wise investment strategy.
The small satellite market shows that good things do come in small packages. In the 1960s, during the genesis of the satellite industry, communication satellites were typically the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. In the 90s, and even up to today, large satellites are often the size of a school bus. The size and weight of these massive spacecraft add to the overall cost of building and launching them. Thanks to advancements in science and engineering, many of the same capabilities that were the sole domain of large, complex satellites can be provided in smaller, less expensive packages. Depending on the needs of the user, small satellites can be about the size of a loaf of bread–or smaller, up to the size of a dorm room refrigerator, says Patterson. Today’s smaller satellites offer a variety of benefits, and because of their size, weight and power requirements, they are less expensive to build and easier to launch.
Small satellites can often piggyback on other launches. For example, a small satellite may piggyback on a hosted payload already set to launch, making the mission only slightly more expensive. “With small satellites, you can launch multiple missions with a little extra cost rather than multiple missions with a bunch more costs,” Patterson explains. “Piggybacked missions are a byproduct of the efforts being made by the small satellite industry.”
Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory (SDL) is likely the biggest long-term benefactor of the conference. Patterson says that while SDL doesn’t have a direct role in hosting the conference, its credibility, reputation, experience and success add weight to the conference and provide long-term name recognition among conference attendees. SDL has driven USU to the forefront of space research. Utah companies like ATK and L-3 also add to the conference through their participation and support. While ATK focuses on launch systems, L-3 builds miniature communication systems that fly on the small satellites.
The northern Utah economy also benefits from the conference, which brings in nearly $1 million in economic impact. The broader economic impact is shared across the state. Patterson says many conference attendees bring their families and like to visit Moab and other parts of the state while they are here.
“It’s hard to put a number on the total economic impact,” he continues, “but we know it is good for the community and for the state.”