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Why Smaller Satellites and Cheaper Tech Are Fueling The Space Boom

July 18, 2018, 6:33 PM UTC

You can thank smaller satellites and cheaper technologies for helping contribute to the current space market.

During a panel on the space industry on Wednesday during Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo., Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said “small satellites are now a really major mover in the industry.”

Although satellites used to be the size of buses or cars, they now can be as small as a washing machine or refrigerator, Hart explained.

Now, companies appear to be sending more of these smaller satellites, armed with sensors, in space to carry out feats like capturing imagery of the Earth, monitoring greenhouse gasses, or tracking the movements of shipping vessels cruising the world’s seas, said Howard Lance the CEO of space technology company Maxar Technologies.

Hart said that Virgin Orbit, part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, is building “a small satellite launcher” that’s hooked onto a Boeing 747 aircraft. A successful launch from this mechanism would be akin to the “holy grail” of space launches, because it would be similar to more conventional “aircraft-like launches,” he said.

He also shared what was it like when Branson first approached him about leading Virgin Orbit:

“There was no answer but yes,” Hart said. “My blood was just pumping.”

One of the pitfalls of sending so many smaller satellites to space, however, is that there’s now more of a chance that accidents could occur in Earth’s low orbit. Lance believes that the U.S. and other international governments need to work together to address the potential of the skies filling up with too much space junk.

“We’ve had our satellites in orbit get damaged,” said Lance. “It’s only going to get worse before it gets better.”

One way Maxar is dealing with damaged satellites, Lance noted, is by sending a customized satellite into low orbit that could help repair or refuel other satellites.

“We’re funding right now a special satellite that will be able to assemble other satellites in orbit,” Lance said.

He noted that while technology like this are like “things you see in the movies,” the plan is for Maxar to launch those satellite-repairing satellites with the U.S. government in three years.

As for the idea of sending people to space, like Jeff Bezos’s Blue Orbit company wants to do to foster the idea of space tourism, Lance said that it’s “kind of a longer term” play.

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“I certainly don’t think 50 years,” Lance said. “I think [in] 20 years you’ll see space commerce in a different way.”