A Giant Leap: The Big Goals Behind Small Satellite Development

9th October, 2020

During fiscal year 2021, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is scheduling to launch a second collection of satellite technology into outer space as part of its Innovative Satellite Technology Demonstration Program. Mitsubishi Electric, that has a long history developing medium and large satellites, will be providing the small satellite that will serve as a platform for the assorted parts and devices. This will mark the company’s first step into the small satellite market — a decision that may turn out to be a giant leap for Mitsubishi Electric’s space exploration business.

A New Age of Space Exploration

May 2020 marked a new milestone for space exploration — the first successful launch of a manned spaceship by a private company.

Deregulation has lowered the entry bar for space exploration — once the exclusive domain of the public sector — and encouraged startups and other private companies to join the effort. As a result, the space exploration business is expected to expand for the foreseeable future.

Space is familiar territory for Mitsubishi Electric, that has assembled a vast trove of advanced technologies and knowledge to develop primarily large and medium satellites. The company has produced communication and broadcasting satellites, Earth observation satellites, navigation satellites, and even exploration spacecraft that help us unravel the mysteries of space.

Today, Mitsubishi Electric is working on expanding into a new and challenging field of space exploration: small satellites.

"After years of developing large and medium satellites, we are finally looking into the business potential of small satellites," says Shuhei Kamiya of the company’s Advanced Satellite Systems Department. First up is a small satellite that Mitsubishi Electric is designing and manufacturing for the Innovative Satellite Technology Demonstration Program operated by JAXA. The satellite, which will weigh about 100 kg, will also incorporate operational technology developed by the company itself.

From Satellites to Satellite Solutions

The program, led by the Japanese government and JAXA, invites private companies and universities to put into orbit and demonstrate devices, parts, microsatellites, and other satellite tech that they have developed. The small satellite that Kamiya and his team are working on will serve as a platform for testing these items in outer space.

Why small satellites? One reason is the accelerating global race to develop satellites that form constellations — networks of dozens of small satellites orbiting the Earth. By communicating and working with each other, the satellites provide the kind of global coverage that is increasingly needed by large-scale data businesses and internet providers. Adding constellation satellites to Mitsubishi Electric’s portfolio of medium and large satellites makes a lot of business sense — but Kamiya is playing a longer game.

"Our work on small satellites will, of course, expand our current business model of providing satellites to our clients," he says. "However, I think it also has the potential to create a new business model: providing satellite solutions. One example is observation solutions. Until now, observation satellites have been primarily used to capture images that are provided as is to the customer. But what if we were able to deduce what the customer is seeking in those images and extract that information from the images ourselves, providing a more value-added service? That’s the kind of solution business we’re currently brainstorming."

A Truly Global Satellite Business

Some of the parts and components that will be tested in the Innovative Satellite Technology Demonstration Program include a large lithium ion battery, a telemetry and command antenna produced with a 3D printer, and a tiny microcontroller. They will be installed on the small satellite that Kamiya and his team are developing, which is scheduled to be launched during fiscal year 2021 via an Epsilon rocket from Uchinoura Space Center in Kagoshima, Japan.

The satellite is being developed under far stricter conditions — including budget and schedule — than Mitsubishi Electric’s typical large and medium satellite projects, pushing the engineers to devise new development methods. So far, the results have passed the usual rigorous design, quality, and safety assessments. The team is now in the final stage of the planning phase and will soon be entering the testing phase. Kamiya says the experience has made him more confident than ever about the company’s future in the field of small satellites.

"To be honest, there’s still a lot we don’t know about the small satellite and observation solutions businesses," he says, "But I have a solid sense that we are amassing some very valuable knowledge through this project — knowledge that I’m confident can also provide benefits to our large and medium satellite development."

One example he brings up is knowing how to cut manufacturing costs and still deliver a high level of performance — knowledge that could help give Mitsubishi Electric an edge in the global satellite race.

"Take a look at the world, and you’ll find a whole array of needs that haven’t been met yet — not just with telecommunication satellites, but also with observation satellites," Kamiya says. "That means if we can provide a more varied lineup that can meet a wide range of budgets and needs, we may be able to attract new customers. In this way, the small satellite we are building right now might not only help us enter the constellation business, but also make us more competitive and help Mitsubishi Electric sell even more satellites around the world. For me, this satellite is just the first step in conducting the kind of research and development that will transform our satellite work into a truly global business."

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