SatNews’ 2023 SmallSat Symposium was the largest ever, with 901 in-person attendees. However, the mood was somewhat subdued. The realization that financing will be tighter, and an inevitable winnowing of competitors is starting to sink in. Ambitious early-stage companies with significant funding needs before breakeven will likely be hit hardest. Key themes included:
- Artificial Intelligence (“AI”)/ Machine Learning (“ML”) was a hot topic with significant implications for flight operations and orbital debris avoidance, computer programming, and other areas.
- Vertical Integration. Companies across the spectrum discussed the advantages and, in many cases, the need for significant vertical integration. The most common reason given for vertical integration was that supply chains are well-developed or otherwise unreliable. In some cases, this is due to companies having unique business plans and needing supplies commonly produced to the required specifications. In other cases, vertical integration was justified based on supply chain issues. Supply chain shortages threatened to leave companies exposed to shortages of critical components if they did not take on the task of building those components internally.
- On-orbit processing was another significant theme. The consensus seems to be moving away from “dumb” bent-pipe satellites to ones with significantly enhanced onboard processing. Justifications range from reducing the amount of data downloaded from space (e.g., don’t download the remote sensing images that are 100% cloud cover) to reducing the environmental impact of terrestrial data centers. [AM Comment: In the past, bent-pipe architecture was preferred as processing power rapidly evolves. Shorter NGSO lifespans, however, may change this calculation]
- Standardization, something the satellite industry has long avoided in practice, is an idea whose time appears to have come. Speakers stressed the importance of standardization for reducing costs to unlock new customer markets across the sectors of the industry.
- Space Debris concerns continued to amplify, with Viasat’s Mark Dankberg giving an interesting perspective (See the summary of Session P on page 33).
Elon Musk was the elephant in the room. None of Musk’s companies presented. However, Musk’s presence was felt. It is unclear how many of the new launch companies intend to compete with SpaceX, how the broadband constellations intend to compete with Starlink, or how the ground equipment companies can compete with his low-cost user terminals. Several companies stressed the importance of a diverse ecosystem, but few ideas on how to get there.