Small satellites have been under development for decades mainly by AMSAT and student groups around the world. There has always been the criticism that the smaller the satellite, the less it can do. That attitude is changing. For example, Leonard David points to a recent study by a group of 33 scientists from 15 institutions that looked at the problem of fully characterizing the amount and distribution of water on the Moon. They found that  nano-satellites offer a tremendous opportunities to tackle this challenge and to do it in a low cost manner:

From the report:

The first major goal of this study was to identify the outstanding questions about lunar volatiles that could be addressed by new observations. In order to define the key measurements, we identified two fundamental questions driving the science and exploration of lunar volatiles:

1. What are the origins and evolution of water in the inner Solar System?
2. Where are the operationally useful deposits of water on the Moon?

Existing data have only scratched the surface with regard to the abundance and distribution of water on the Moon, let alone its origins.


The second major goal for this study was to seek ways to harness emerging small spacecraft technologies for low#cost lunar missions. Since their advent in the 1990’s, nanosatellites (and the CubeSat form factor in particular) have rapidly evolved and are now routinely built (primarily by university students) and launched to low# Earth orbit (LEO) for science, technology, and education applications. With their rapid development times and extremely low cost compared to traditional spacecraft, nanosatellites and other small satellites present an exciting new paradigm to planetary science, if their capabilities can be proven beyond low Earth orbit. The Moon is ideally situated for the first of these missions. We therefore assessed whether or not one or more small satellite missions could accomplish the desired lunar ice detection measurements.

In this report, we propose a new program of lunar science and exploration by small, low-cost spacecraft. Initially, this program will be guided by the above measurement goals relevant to detection and mapping of lunar volatiles, but could later be expanded  to  other  investigations  of  the  Moon  and  beyond.  As  a  first  step,  we advocate  sending  a  “trailblazer”  nanosatellite  to  a  polar  lunar  orbit, which would  carry a limited yet useful payload (see Section 5). The goal of this mission would be  to prove that scientifically valuable data on lunar volatiles could be acquired using a  nanosatellite  at  a  total  cost  of  <$10M.  Some  of  the  key  technologies  needing  development are identified in this report. Following the pathfinder mission, one or  more  additional  small  satellites would  carry  instrumentation  specifically designed  for  the  measurements  outlined  above.  Ultimately,  we  envision  a  fleet  of  tiny  spacecraft,  each  with  its  own  specialized  yet  synergistic  payload  for  detecting,  mapping, and characterizing lunar ice deposits. If successful, such a program has the  potential to accomplish as much as a traditional spacecraft mission, at a fraction of  the  cost.  Finally,  this  program  could  pave  the way  for more  ambitious  spacecraft  missions  beyond  the  Moon,  thereby  opening  up  a  new  paradigm  in  planetary  exploration.


I’m managing editor at NewSpace Watch, which is part  of  NewSpace Global. For a detailed review of the growing smallsat industy, check out the  NewSpace Global 2014 SmallSat Report.