Industry Insights

Defense Agencies Ramp Up Small Satellite Use

2020-04-30  |  5 min read 

In many ways, the arms race of yesteryear has morphed into a technology face-off as countries compete for control of the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum. This battle spans air, land, and sea as forces implement new levels of connectivity, awareness, and capabilities. Increasingly, countries are looking to lower earth orbit (LEO) small satellites/CubeSats to boost those competencies. Compared to their Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) cousins, CubeSats offer more flexibility in launch choices and cheaper deployment due to their small size.

Even with the growing use of CubeSats across all industries, the military segment had the highest small satellite market share in 2019. According to these findings from Mordor Intelligence, that share is dominated by the military end-user segment. Armed forces around the world are focused on enhancing their communications framework.

To help military forces meet this demand within a reasonable budget, small satellite companies seek cost-effective approaches for large-scale production, such as the use of low-cost passives. In Australia, such affordability was a driving factor in the Defence Force’s award of a $3.1 million contract to DEWC Systems for a CubeSat-based space tactical sensor system. According to INDaily, the Miniaturized Orbital Electronic Warfare Sensor System (MOESS) represents the first electronic warfare (EW) capability to be developed, owned, and operated by Australia.

The constellation is expected to comprise roughly 20 CubeSats, which boast sensors and monitoring equipment. Their goal is to detect radio signals and frequencies so that movements of assets like aircraft or ships can be monitored from above. According to the current project schedule, a prototype is tentatively scheduled for launch in 2022. Rough details of the integrated technology point to sensors and most likely artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities. The AI would help with the identification and classification of radars, lending the CubeSats their EW capabilities.

In the U.S., recently reported that the military and the Defense Department’s new Space Development Agency (SDA) are assessing the use of lower earth orbit (LEO) constellations. Potential applications could reportedly include communications, advanced missile defense, or a GPS alternative. In 2018, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA) tactical technology office also started the Blackjack project to evaluate LEO constellations for military use.

As they support increasing military and defense applications, CubeSat manufacturers will have to enhance aspects like reliability and security. Testing is a focused activity that helps to increase confidence in the ability of a satellite—or constellation of satellites—to fulfill its mission over the expected lifespan. For any organization, the depth, breadth, and cost of testing performed is a function of its risk tolerance and the consequences of mission failure. Although CubeSats operate with aggressive schedules, tight budgets, and a lot of cost pressure, the costs are reduced when looked at over the satellite lifetime in contrast to the failures prevented in the process. When it comes to defense missions, confidence in success is truly critical.

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For more on how Keysight supports testing for NewSpace LEO satellites, please download our application note: Reducing the “Cost of Confidence” in Testing for NewSpace. In-depth information on the full satellite life cycle can be found in our new mission assurance brochure. Additional resources are available at