Last week, Boeing and Raytheon announced partnerships with start-ups focusing on small satellites, investing in Colorado-based BridgeSat and Virginia-based HawkEye360, respectively. Those announcements come as Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin expands its business with an Irvine, Calif.-based “nano-satellite” company called Terran Orbital.
The companies are responding to changing priorities at U.S. defense and intelligence agencies.
“Companies like Boeing and Lockheed have an interest in getting into the small-satellite business because it feels like that’s where the industry is going,” said Marco Caceres, an analyst with the aerospace consultancy Teal Group. “They have decided that rather than develop their own in-house capabilities, they want to buy into it.”
The market for smaller satellites, which are designed to orbit close to Earth’s atmosphere, is growing quickly. According to a report by the Satellite Industry Association and Bryce Space and Technology, a total of 292 of the spacecrafts were launched into space last year, compared with 55 in 2016.
The shift is fueled by a wave of innovation that has made satellites cheaper to produce and the emergence of new commercial launch providers, such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which have made space more accessible. Recent advances in optics and communication technologies have improved the smaller spacecrafts’ capabilities for remote sensing and imaging.
For U.S. military and intelligence agencies, the move toward smaller satellites is part of a broader effort to shore up their space-based assets against attack. It’s also the basis for President Trump’s Space Force proposal. If approved by Congress, the Space Force would be a sixth branch of the U.S. military focused on