The Ukrainian crisis has shed light on the criticality of space assets for military operations, with the hacking of Viasat’s KA-SAT numbing the ability of the Ukrainian armed forces in the early hours of the conflict. This episode illustrates how satellites transitioned from being supporting capabilities for ground operations to strategic warfare assets of their own. But in a context of increased threats and scrutinized public finances, military satellites must now respond to new imperatives: better responsiveness and an improved resiliency, in addition to cost-effectiveness. Satellite modularity may be the key to answering these new imperatives for the military space.
Military satellite development is a lengthy and costly process. To sustain long years of activity in space, satellite buses and payloads require a high level of customization and integration that leaves but little room to the use of standardized components. For military forces, this comes with a set of drawbacks.
Long development timesscales with no upgradeability expose military assets to technological obsolescence with sensors often outdated months after they are placed on orbit. This means that military satellites often showcase outdated space technologies when compared to commercial counterparts, increasing the reliance of the military on commercial actors, at a financial cost.
This is illustrated by recent headlines including recent contracts between the US Air Force and Starlink for satcoms, or the historical multi-billion contract signed by the National Reconnaissance Office with Planet, Maxar, and BlackSky for optical imagery. From a geostrategic standpoint, there also tends to be a last mover advantage, where the latest nation to place a satellite on orbit often benefits from more competitive technologies.
But military space programs are also less resilient. An unintentional or malicious component failure often jeopardizes an entire mission and its associated military program. While there is a way around the issue via redundancy and backup satellites, this comes at a high financial costs in contexts where military forces often run after funding. Finally, interoperability also becomes a challenge when military satellites are based on customized platforms. In a geopolitical environment where more interoperability will be sought after, at the NATO level for example, this might come as burdensome from a strategic and tactical responsiveness standpoint.
So, how can modularity in satellite design help the military space overcome its shortcomings?
Modularity in satellite design bears the objective of decoupling payloads and their host satellite buses. While payloads are generally integrated via a dedicated and unique integration process to customized and proprietary bus systems that provide power supply, telemetry and communications to the hosted payload, modularity aims at making it as easy to integrate a payload to a satellite bus as it is to plug a USB drive to a socket. This is sometimes referred to as a “plug-and-fly” solution. The ease of use generates production efficiency for manufacturers via faster integration, enhanced interoperability and, at the end, lowered satellite development timeframes. One can then see how this also contributes to more flexibility in the design of satellite constellations.
In the advancement of modularity, the efforts brought by the Aerospace Corp. that sets itself the objective to integrate and launch the payloads and bus of a satellite within 24 hours can be industry-changing. Later this year, the nonprofit corporation will send Slingshot 1, a 12U cubesat that acts as an interface box connecting 19 payloads, proof-testing modularity for a variety of use cases.
The military scrutinizes the promises of modularity, and it comes as no surprise that Slingshot 1 will launch aboard Virgin Orbit’s STP-S28 mission, a Defense Department Space Test Program mission awarded back in 2020. Modularity is key for military space resilience as it eliminates the Risks of total mission failure if a component is faulty by facilitating the replacement or repurposing of the satellite on-orbit.
Augmentation and upgradeability of space systems are also part of the resilience of the military, as missions can be extended by the replacement of old sensors and processors like outdated optical or communications payloads. Such use cases will be unlocked by the emergence of Mission Extension (MEVs) and Mission Robotic Vehicles (MRVs), of which Northrop Grumman is a pioneer.
Through modularity, military forces will also achieve greater responsiveness, via two means. First, by quickly swapping payloads and buses, thus reducing the time required for mission preparation. Second, by being able to launch payloads on buses that are adapted for launch on a wide variety of launchers and commercial satellite dispensers. Ultimately, the lowered costs will also encourage military branches to take greater risks since the cost/benefit trade-off will be re-equilibrated in favor of reduced mission longevity that leaves room for regular technological upgrades and more innovation. All of this at lowered costs, thus expanding the financing capacities of other programs by the military.
Despite its promises, the development of modularity in military space is not without barriers to be overcome, and we foresee two imperative evolutions for its success. The first imperative will be to find ways of having both commercial and military space players sit around the table. This dialogue will help commercial players understand the needs of the military in terms of hardware and payload characteristics so that “good-enough” products for military applications can be developed to facilitate modular applications. Initiatives like the Space Warfighting Analysis Center of the US Space Force are perfect cases in point of such initiatives where the space force pushes information on its technical requirements to the industry. In parallel, it is necessary for military forces to keep up the pace of fast-changing space capabilities developed in the commercial world, and the US Defense Innovation Unit was created just for that purpose.
The second imperative, closely linked to the first one, is the development of appropriate standards. Standardized interfaces will be key in increasing the compatibility of modular platforms and payloads, unlocking the true potential of modularity by pulling costs down since an increased range of players both military and commercial will shop from the same marketplaces, reducing the barrier of entry for early stage technologies and small space companies, thus facilitating commercial growth. This will in turn shorten development constraints and time-to-orbit of modular satellites, also facilitating the interoperability between armed forces. VS
Mathieu Luinaud is a senior associate within the PwC Space Practice. His experience covers space domains from upstream to downstream. He has worked extensively with satellite manufacturers and satellite operators on business model development and market assessments.