SmallSat Symposium 2024: Key Highlights

Satellites Cover Image
Written by
Adrián Márques MSc, MBA
Published on
July 9, 2024

Author: Adrián Márques, Managing Partner @ Digital Sense

The SmallSat industry keeps barreling ahead. Here we share some of our takeaways from the event.

At Digital Sense, we’ve been pushing boundaries in satellite imaging, remote sensing, and AI applications for over 15 years. Participating in the recent SmallSat Symposium was an absolute pleasure, and I wanted to share some key takeaways from it:

The Space Boom: Reference Figures

The space industry is experiencing explosive growth. While it took 55 years since Sputnik to launch 1024 satellites by 2012, SpaceX alone launched 2000 satellites last year. The number of SmallSats now far outstrips traditional satellites, with some 7,000 Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites compared to around 600 Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO) satellites.

The Status of Funding for Space Startups

After the peak in investment of 2021 of over 15B, funding for Space startups remained disrupted in 2023. Even so, it still amounted to 7.4B. Raising capital has become more competitive, but startups are still being funded. Investors shifted from investing in companies with the technical vision and expertise, to now demand better proof of business cases and market validation. Analysts deem 2022 and 2023 were years of reckoning, but already see signs of recovery from this cycle. Startups that survive this crunch cycle will emerge reinforced.

Increase in Lift Capabilities and Falling Launch Prices

SpaceX’s Starship and Blue Origin’s New Glenn promise massive lift capabilities with much lower costs. Costs will remain unaffected for the next 2 to 3 years, but the SmallSat industry should look ahead to coming threats from larger satellite bus designs that could throw more mass, power and volume at problems and still be cheap and compete with SmallSats. K2 Space is an example of a company following this approach.

Sustainability Concerns: Addressing Orbital Traffic

The rapid rise in launches is leading to a growing concern: orbital debris and potential collisions. To address this, a multi-pronged approach is needed, encompassing regulations, monitoring, prediction, and removal technologies. Exciting companies working on these applications include NorthStar and Astroscale. As constellations scale, getting humans out of the loop will be key to respond timely to potential collisions.

The State of Earth Observation (EO) Constellations

Satellogic, Planet and Chang Guang remain the three largest commercial remote sensing constellations in the world. 25% of companies that announced SmallSat plans in the last 5 years are advancing towards their plans, less than 5% achieved those plans.

AI as key for the Commercial Success of EO Companies

A cornerstone of commercial success for EO companies is the effective and efficient use of cloud, AI and MLOps technologies and practices. This is one of our areas of expertise. Pre-training very robust backbones to then fine-tune and making smart use of synthetic data to reduce the amount of required real training instances will be key elements to reduce the cost of model development and scale the production of application-specific models.

Generative AI in Space

Last year's Gen AI boom has people talking about its application to any and all domains. Mentioned applications for the Space industry included: the design of satellite hardware components, as human-computer interface to query satellite image archives in natural language, and being able to mimic the work of human image analysts over large volumes of images.

Application spotlight: Methane Monitoring

Emission monitoring was highlighted in several presentations and panels. Companies like GHGSat and Absolut Sensing are trailblazers in this arena. At Digital Sense we see this is a key application, with several research papers on the topic published by members of our team. We are passionate about contributing to this and other space imaging applications, and see a future fueled by powerful collaborations.

Why Digital Sense Should be Your Partner in Space

The SmallSat business is challenging. The technical hurdles are numerous, acquiring the right talent is hard, and adhering to a roadmap becomes an uphill battle when unforeseen tech issues collide with evolving and urgent business demands.

At Digital Sense we're experts in satellite image processing, remote sensing and AI. We offer specialized teams that seamlessly align with yours, so that you can timely solve those technical challenges that must be overcome to reach commercial success in today's competitive landscape.

Choose Digital Sense — Your Launchpad to Success in Space.