Small-sats to represent a significant market for photonics

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Between 2,000 and 2,750 nano- and micro-satellites are predicted to be launched from 2014 to 2020, according to Chris Brunskill, upstream technologies lead at the Satellite Applications Catapult. Small-sats could therefore represent a big market for photonics, as the satellites rely on electro-optic technologies for sensing capabilities.

Brunskill was speaking at the Photonex conference and exhibition in Coventry, UK that took place from 15 to 16 October.

Small, light and cheap satellites are set to transform Earth observation. The market for small-sats is predicted to reach £970 million in 2020, a share of around half of the total commercial Earth observation data market in 2020. A lot of electro-optic components go into satellites, not least the sensor and imaging detectors, so the small-sat market represents a significant one for photonics companies.

Small-sats can deliver just as relevant images for Earth observation than the larger satellites, Brunskill said at Photonex, and at a fraction of the cost. Skybox Imaging, which Google bought for $500 million in June, and Planet Labs are two small-sats currently in orbit. Both offer optical and near infrared spectral bands for imaging.

The Satellite Applications Catapult is a technology and innovation centre that aims to foster economic growth in the UK space sector. It provides support for technology development for nano- and micro-satellite missions, which could include photonics companies.

Brunskill said that the two main challenges for small-sats are the cost of launching such satellites into space and downloading the data once they’re in orbit, as a network of receivers are required positioned across the globe.

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