Historical Perspectives on the Evolution of Small Satellites

Living reference work entry


This chapter reviews the history and the evolutionary development of small satellites and of launch vehicle systems and the evolution of orbital space debris over time. It suggests that the development of space technology, space systems, and rocket launchers has occurred in response to various military, political, economic, scientific, and business mandates. This history that as now cover a period of over a half century has evolved in an almost haphazard fashion, largely without concern for the space environment in Earth orbit and the need to pay attention to the long-term sustainability of outer space activities. Such concerns for “sustainability” have only come into focus since the 2010s. It also notes that the concept of “smallsats” has continued to evolve and change in many ways over time.

This chapter notes how technical innovation, disruptive technologies, new commercial space opportunities, and entrepreneurial aspirations have all contributed in the past decade to fuel the newest aspects of “New Space” or “Space 2.0” and “smallsat” development. This has created new opportunities to use space systems in new and innovative ways – especially for new entrants and users from developing economies. Yet these new commercial space initiatives and especially new large-scale “smallsat” constellations have also given rise to the problems of excessive amounts of space debris in Earth orbit. There are now particular concerns about the need for space traffic control and management that arise from the fear of runaway proliferation of space debris, known as the Kessler syndrome. This “Kessler syndrome” posits that there could be a real future possibility of a growing avalanche of space debris accruing over time with new major collisions in space happening every 5–10 years. This history seeks to give a comprehensive view of the new opportunities that small satellite systems and new launch systems could bring to global economic growth and new space-based services but also to note negative developments and concerns that need to be addressed to ensure the longer-term sustainability of the space around Earth – especially LEO, MEO, and GEO orbital regions. This history thus seeks to place the development of small satellites into some context that compares their current state of technical and operational evolution in without repeating the historical notes already provided in Chap. 1.0.


Disruptive technologies Explorer 1 Kessler syndrome Launch vehicles for small satellites Miniaturization “New Space” Off-the-shelf components Orbital space debris Satellite constellations in low Earth orbit Small satellites “Space 2.0” Space traffic control/space traffic management Sustainability Sputnik 1 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of North Carolina at Chapel HillChapel HillUSA
  2. 2.Executive BoardInternational Association for the Advancement of Space SafetyArlingtonUSA
  3. 3.International Space University (ISU)StrasbourgFrance

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