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The Mynaric company wants to build thousands of laser terminals in Oberpfaffenhofen, which are to be integrated into constellations with numerous communication satellites. Illustration: Mynarique / oh
The days when small quantities were involved in building satellites for weather observation or telecommunications are long gone. Space-X and Oneweb manufacture thousands of Internet satellites, each weighing 150 to 260 kilograms. The Bremen space company OHB has been screwing even heavier satellites in series since 2010: 34 parts for the Galileo navigation system – 730 kilos each. In the opinion of the industry association BDI and the Association of German Engineers (VDI), however, small satellites are becoming increasingly important: for communication, autonomous driving, logistics or even climate research. Both now want an “all-industrial initiative of the federal government for small and micro satellites” in order to preserve opportunities for start-ups and medium-sized companies. The support comes from the Federal Ministry of the Economy: “We want to bring together actors from politics, research and industry to jointly build an ecosystem of small satellites in Germany”, according to a statement.
Fortune Business Insights analysts calculate: The market for small satellites weighing up to 500 kilograms will grow from around $ 4 billion to a volume of $ 10.75 billion globally by 2028. The driving factors are new fast data networks for applications based on the 5G standard, but also the Internet of Things to network factories around the world. Satellite constellations are needed for this. In addition to broadband satellites, as European Commissioner Thierry Breton also recommends, projects like that of Ororatech are part of it: the Munich start-up wants to put around a hundred small satellites into orbit by 2026, which should detect faster forest fires around the world.
BDI and VDI predict that around 15,000 satellites will be launched around the world by 2030, 90% of which will be less than 500 kilograms. “Small satellites are thus one of the main engines of the future dynamic space market”, underline the associations in a document. After the Federal Ministry of the Economy funded German rocket start-ups through a competition worth 25 million euros, the associations want similar support for small satellites.
About 60 percent of all small satellites are made in the United States, only three percent in Germany. “In view of the state support in other countries, it is to be feared that Germany will fall further behind,” say the associations. Professor Klaus Schilling of the Telematics Center in Würzburg, who has developed training technologies for satellites, is co-author of VDI. The VDI had already launched a fundraising call for small satellites in 2019. “We were concerned that there had been so little movement in Europe in this regard,” says Schilling, “we are concerned that, like GPS, we let’s be left behind “. For example, he finds it “fascinating that Chinese automaker Geely is building its own satellite plant.”
Opportunities for an integrated value chain
BDI and VDI are launching a call for orders and technology competitions to set up commercial production of small satellites off the assembly line. They are considering public funding of 50 million euros – spread over five years. “Germany is very strong in manufacturing large and complex satellites,” says Matthias Wachter, space expert at BDI. “We need to get into industrial production of small satellites now.” The timing is perfect. “In combination with German micro-launchers and a North Sea launch pad, there would be a rare opportunity to rebuild an integrated value chain.” Germany is also in a good starting position when it comes to the planned constellation of European Internet satellites. A small satellite initiative should therefore be included in the new coalition agreement. Wachter sees no risk of further clogging the orbit. “Of course, commercial companies are now considering scrapping obsolete satellites from the start, because investors demand sustainability.”
In the meantime, the Federal Ministry of Economics is preparing a “Small Satellite Ecosystem” strategy “to strengthen Germany as a business location in this promising area”. A competition for small satellites for companies is also planned with the German Aerospace Center (DLR). Walther Pelzer, head of the space agency at DLR, therefore welcomes the industry initiative, but sees no budget. “Due to the missions and projects currently funded in the German space program, it is unfortunately not possible to fund a new initiative as described by the BDI.” A competition is “an ideal instrument” to “prepare manufacturers for the growing market for small satellites”.