Between 2012 and 2016, global militaries took delivery of 203 satellites. Deliveries reached a peak in 2013 with the launch of 55 satellites. Launches declined to a low point in 2016, when only 26 satellites were delivered into orbit. Going forward, yearly deliveries are expected to continue between those two end-points.
This is according to Forecast International, which this month said that over the past five years, satellite size – measured by launch mass – has fluctuated. In 2012, the average launch mass of military satellites reached 3,533.5 kilograms – a high during the last five years.
However, since then, average launch mass has declined, to 2,236.2 kilograms in 2013, 1,588 kilograms in 2014, 1,196.5 kilograms in 2015, and 1,496.3 kilograms in 2016.
Forecast International has launch mass data for 113 out of the 203 satellites launched between 2012 and 2016 (this data is not published for all military satellites).
Even as militaries increasingly rely on smaller satellite form factors, adoption of SmallSats will be slower in the military sector than in the commercial sector. Companies like Planet and OneWeb plan to launch hundreds of small satellites to serve their customers around the world in coming years, Forecast International said.
Although the average launch mass has declined, extremely large satellites – those with a launch mass above 6 000 kilograms – continue to be important to the market. Satellites such as MUOS-5, Kobal’t-M 10, and Persona-2 continue to play an important role in military operations.
Requirements for high operational capability and protection against enemy attacks will require larger satellites for militaries than for commercial companies or even civil government agencies. Militaries are also more risk-averse and are not as willing to use untested equipment as new commercial ventures are.
Still, as evidenced by declining average launch masses, smaller satellites are becoming more popular with military buyers.
Satellites below 3,500 kilograms have gained in favour compared to larger satellites. In 2012, satellites with a launch mass of 3,501 kilograms or above made up 54.6 percent of all satellites launched that year. However, by 2016, that figure declined to 15.8 percent, while satellites with a launch mass of 3,500 kilograms or below increased from 45.5 percent of the market to 84.2 percent.
Satellites between 501 kilograms and 3,500 kilograms are one area of growth, increasing from 18.2 percent of the market in 2012 to 47.4 percent of the market in 2016. That mass range enables satellites to be large enough to accommodate military needs while remaining small enough to lower construction and launch costs.
Going forward, there will likely be a place for both small and large spacecraft. Mission-critical spacecraft that require nuclear hardening will likely continue to be large, while other missions can be fulfilled by smaller satellites, Forecast International said.