Palm sized satellites,
3D printed rockets
herald new era in space

Source: Rocket Lab

An era has begun in which satellites can be easily launched. Palm-sized satellites are now possible thanks to advances in microminiaturization technology. Launch costs have dropped dramatically as rockets have become lighter. It is expected that more than 20,000 satellites for observation and communication will be launched into space within the next 10 years. A total of about 30,000 satellites, including those currently in operation, will fly above the Earth, and this is expected to revolutionize life on the ground through the use of satellite data.


A close look at the front lines of rocket development


When you visit the website of Rocket Lab, a small rocket development company based in New Zealand and the U.S., an eye-catching statement jumps out at you. The company, from which you can easily request a satellite launch, is one of the startups that will lead the next generation of the space industry.

Since successfully putting its first satellite into orbit in 2018, Rocket Lab has successfully launched 29 times as of December 2022 and sent more than 150 satellites into space. We visited its factory to get a close-up look at the front lines of satellite development and manufacturing.

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the front lines of rocket development


New Zealand is the company's development base

There were many rockets in the process of being manufactured in the factory in Auckland, northern New Zealand. They were the company's Electron model, a small rocket for launching small satellites. The company finishes about one rocket per month.

Reducing launch costs by miniaturizing

Our first impression of their rocket is that it is quite small. With an overall length of about 18 meters and a diameter of about 1.2 meters, it is about a quarter the size of the current model of the Falcon 9 rocket (70 meters in length) of Elon Musk's SpaceX. The cost of launching a small satellite, previously about $50 million, has been reduced to about $7.5 million. This is a major boost to space development by the private sector.

Launched into Low Earth orbit (LEO) at an altitude of 2,000 kilometers or less, the Electron can carry satellites weighing up to 300 kilograms. When fully fueled before takeoff, the total weight of the rocket is about 13 tons.

Rocket Lab develops and manufactures engines for rockets on its own

Nine engines are built into the first stage of the rocket.

Rocket Lab develops and manufactures its Rutherford engines, which are key components, in-house at its U.S. base. In a world first, the company utilizes 3D printing for all major parts of the engines installed in the Electron, including the combustion chamber and pumps. In this way, it has achieved a complex and lightweight structure that was difficult to attain with conventional manufacturing technology.

The Rutherford's breakthrough is the use of an electrically driven pump that pumps fuel into the combustion chamber. In a typical rocket engine, the pump is driven by the gas generated by fuel combustion. The main components can be "printed" within 24 hours.

Rutherford engines

The first stage fuselage accounts for about 70% of the total manufacturing cost of the rocket

The main body of the rocket is made of carbon fiber composite material, which is processed in-house at a factory in Auckland. It is significantly lighter than the aluminum composite material that is the mainstream material for the Falcon 9 and other conventional rockets.

The majority of the first stage fuselage is occupied with fuel tanks, which are jettisoned and fall to the ground with the engines after the rocket is fired and combustion is complete. The manufacturing cost of the first stage, which includes the engines and fuel tanks, accounts for about 70% of the total cost of the rocket. So, Rocket Lab aims to recover and reuse them at the time of launch. This should reduce the costs further.

The second stage fuselage is as thin as a credit card

The second stage fuselage is significantly smaller than the first. The cylindrical body is as thin as a credit card and flexible enough to flex when touched. It carries fuel and engines to enter orbit after reaching space.

The nose stores the satellites

Satellites are carried in the nose of the rocket. The nose is divided into two segments, which open when the rocket reaches space. It is light enough to be lifted with one hand, and inside is a silver cushioning material to protect the satellite from sound and vibration.

Rocket Lab commercializes rocket business with funds from venture capitals

Rocket Lab's factory is as tall and spacious as a large gymnasium, and it handles various processes from cutting out materials to manufacturing and assembling various parts, all within a single building. At the time of our visit, about 10 ""cylinders"" being manufactured were lined up in a row. They will be used for the first and second stages of the rockets.

The Electron was developed by the private sector without relying on the government for funding. Rocket Lab raised funds from venture capitals to develop it, and the company was listed on NASDAQ in 2021. Peter Beck, founder and CEO of Rocket Lab, looked back on the difficulty of making satellites as a business. "What is even harder, is not building your first rocket. It’s getting to rocket number 20. ... If you make the wrong decision, then the cost of that wrong decision is massive." He added, "And generally, you will run out of money or run out of time. So you always have to make the right decision every time."

The company also has a launch site in New Zealand. The initial idea was to launch all the rockets from the U.S., but it built a site in New Zealand to "be able to launch whenever we want at a high frequency," Beck said. "The trouble with launching out of Cape Canaveral, for example, in the United States, is that it’s very busy. So you have to wait your turn to launch your rocket."

Electron rockets in the process of being manufactured in the factory in Auckland, northern New Zealand.
Electron rockets in the process of being manufactured in the factory in Auckland, northern New Zealand. (Photo courtesy of Rocket Lab)
Transporting small rockets by sea

A startup is also trying to develop a small rocket in northern Scotland. Edinburgh-based Skyrora's small rocket is 23 meters long, and its advantage is that it can be transported by sea in multiple containers with a complete set of launch equipment.

"We can launch rockets from anywhere in the world using our technology," says Derek Harris, the company's business operations manager. With their rockets, even emerging countries that lack facilities for launch can launch domestically in the future. Skyrora plans to launch the rocket into orbit in 2023.

Skyrora's rocket can be transported by sea and launched anywhere in the world.
Skyrora's rocket can be transported by sea and launched anywhere in the world. (Photo courtesy of Skyrora)

Deciphering satellite orbits in 3D

Satellites in space move into operation at an altitude appropriate to their role. The race to launch satellites began in the 1960s, and the number of satellites currently in operation is about 7,000. Based on satellite orbit data published by Space-Track.org, a satellite database, we visualized and analyzed the positions as of December 1, 2022, around the Earth of approximately 9,000 satellites whose location information is known. This includes those that have ceased operation.

  • Low Earth orbit satellite
  • Medium Earth orbit satellite
  • Highly elliptical orbit satellite
  • Geosynchronous satellite
Number of satellites: About
+ 0
Earth photo courtesy of NASA


Satellite launches reached their first peak after the 1960s. The U.S. landed a man on the moon with Apollo 11 in 1969 and the space race with the Soviet Union intensified.

After the end of the Cold War, the number of satellite launches began to decline. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the U.S. also faced huge costs for satellite launches. In the late 2000s, China began to show its presence as the third spacefaring nation.

After 2020, the number of launches is showing an unprecedented increase. Satellite operations are shifting from traditional government entities to private companies. As technology has advanced and the funding environment improves, new entrants are increasing, and a new space competition has emerged in the fields of communications and observation.

Number of satellite launches rapidly increases since 2020

The number of satellites flying into space is growing.
Source: Space-Track.org

The number of satellites flying into space is growing rapidly, far faster than the increase in the number of rocket launches. Launching large numbers of small satellites on a single rocket is trending, and the density of satellites is increasing, mainly in LEO.

Satellite orbits can be divided into four main categories. The closest to the Earth are Low Earth orbit satellites, which orbit at an altitude of about 2,000 kilometers or less. Development of Low Earth orbit satellites has been progressing in recent years, especially for small satellites. Geosynchronous satellites, which orbit at an altitude of about 36,000 kilometers, are also well known. They orbit at the same period as the Earth and so appear to be stationary. These satellites are used for weather observation and satellite broadcasting. Other types of satellites include Medium Earth orbit satellites, which orbit between the two, and Highly elliptical orbit satellites, which are suitable for communications satellites.

The development of Low Earth orbit satellites, mainly small satellites, has been advancing in recent years. Private companies are launching large numbers of small satellites into low orbit, aiming to utilize them for high-resolution satellite imaging and high-speed satellite communications.

Number of satellite launches will peak in the late 2020s, exceeding 3,000 annually

Number of satellites launched:

According to forecasts by Euroconsult, a private company that provides consulting and research for the satellite industry, the number of satellite launches will peak in the late 2020s, exceeding 3,000 per year. The number of small satellites, which account for the majority of launches, is expected to increase further. The cumulative number of launches is expected to reach more than 24,000 between 2022 and 2031, and by then there will be some 30,000 satellites, including those currently in operation.


Innovation in electronics prompts satellite miniaturization

Satellites are becoming smaller and smaller, thanks to technological innovations in onboard electronics. According to BryceTech, a U.S. data and engineering firm focused in part on space, satellites weighing 600 kilograms and under are classified as "smallsats," and 98% of the satellites launched in July-September 2022 fall into this category. The palm-sized nanosatellites known as "CubeSats" and "nanosats" have also emerged. This is largely due to advacements in electronic devices, just as the performance of smartphones has increased to the level of supercomputers of the past, and even palm-sized devices can now perform advanced calculations.

Satellites are becoming smaller and smaller, thanks to technological innovations in onboard electronics.
Figures are approximate.

In the past, the Hubble Space Telescope, a super-sized satellite measuring over 13 meters in length and weighing some 12 tons, was a typical satellite. Over time, the leading role has shifted to smaller satellites, such as SpaceX's Starlink, which is expanding the coverage area of satellite communications around the world, and the observation satellites of Planet Labs, a U.S. satellite operation company.

A Starlink satellite weighs about 260 kilograms. Unlike large satellites, multiple small satellites can be launched on a single rocket, greatly reducing the cost per launch. That is one of the reasons private companies are choosing small satellites when entering the space business.

Development of CubeSat gains momentum

CubeSat (1U)

The development of the CubeSat, a very small satellite that can be easily lifted by hand, is also gaining momentum. The satellite's size is determined based on a cube, 10 centimeters on a side, and a single cube type called the 1U is palm-sized and weighs less than 2 kilograms. The surface is covered with solar panels to generate electricity for operating various devices. Antennas used for data communications with the ground are often attached to the four corners.

CubeSat (6U)

The 6U type, which is equipped with more solar panels and has more functions, weighs about 10 kilograms and can be held in both hands. It has a power generation capacity of 40-100 watts, higher than the 1U type. Compared to large satellites that use big solar panels, the amount of electricity generated on the 6U is significantly less. The battery is used to power the onboard observation equipment and the computer that handles satellite control and data transfer.

In space, temperatures can change drastically from sun to shade, so technology to maintain a constant temperature inside the satellite is key. Since sudden temperature changes can cause equipment malfunctions, the temperature is controlled by heaters and other devices in the limited space inside.

Launch costs lowered as satellites get lighter

Small satellites dominate the number of launches.

Small satellites dominate the number of launches. Some 98% of global launches in July-September 2022 were under 600 kilograms. While the majority of these satellites are in the several hundred kilogram class, the presence of CubeSat (1.1-10 kilograms) is increasing, accounting for 4% of the total.

In terms of weight share, small satellites weighing less than 600 kilograms account for about 70%, indicating that satellites are becoming increasingly lightweight. Tokyo-based CubeSat developer ArkEdge Space says, "The launch cost of a 6U CubeSat is two orders of magnitude less than that of a large satellite."

1U CubeSat being assembled.
1U CubeSat being assembled. (Photo courtesy of ArkEdge Space)

Furthermore, ArkEdge Space reduces manufacturing cost by using many general-purpose parts. After conducting tests, the company uses off-the-shelf screws and cables, and mounts lithium-ion batteries used in a wide range of industries. Space has become closer than ever before, thanks to technological innovations in both rockets and satellites.


Volume of satellite data communication explodes 10 times in 2031

With the launch of a large number of small satellites, the volume of data communications between Earth and space is exploding. According to a forecast by the U.S. research company Northern Sky Research, the amount of data communication between Earth and space is expected to reach 131,000 petabytes (peta equals to 1 quadrillion) per year in 2031, ten times the amount in 2022. This exceeds the global monthly mobile data traffic (about 90,000 petabytes) in 2022. The use of satellite data will become commonplace, and could change the way we live our daily lives.

Volume of satellite data communication
Volume of satellite data communication
Forecast by sector
Unit: petabytes
Applications such as Earth observation and others760x2.62,000
Space travel and others41x7.4305
Source: Northern Sky Research

Data transmission and reception will be driven by telecommunications applications, which will increase 10.7-fold from 2022 levels by the year 2031. Currently, satellite broadcasting and satellite communications services provided by geostationary satellites account for the bulk of the data volume. However, by 2031, data communications services that use LEO satellites such as Starlink are expected to be widespread, gradually approaching the volume of data from geostationary orbit.

Earth observation applications are also expected to grow by 2.6 times due to the development of applications in a variety of fields. In particular, the use of the data is expected to expand in the fields of security and meteorology.

Daily life will be changed with satellite utilization

Communications everywhere with satellite broadband

With satellite broadband communications, it will be possible to communicate with satellites anywhere on the planet. In Ukraine, it has been used as an important means of communication since the Russian invasion that began in February 2022. U.S. cruise ship operator Royal Caribbean International plans to equip all its ships with Starlink comunicaations. It is no longer a dream that people can work remotely on cruise ships.

With satellite broadband communications, it will be possible to communicate with satellites anywhere on the planet.
Helping farmers in emerging countries with satellite data

A Japanese startup Sagri, whose name is a portmanteau of "satellite," "AI" and "grid," supports microfinance for farmers in emerging countries such as India. Satellite data analysis of farmland parcels and conditions is used to provide credit, as it can be difficult for financial institutions to confirm the actual location of farmland that is far from urban areas.

"High-precision satellite data is expensive, but we can provide services [even with free satellite data] by combining machine learning and other analytical expertise," said Satoshi Nagata, Chief Strategic Officer (CSO) of the company's Indian subsidiary.

Sagri uses data gathered with synthetic aperture radar (SAR), which can capture images regardless of weather conditions. One of the services the company provides is to estimate soil pH and other parameters that clients can refer to, so as to optimize the amount of fertilizer usage. With this, it is expected to reduce both costs and greenhouse gases.

Sagri estimates soil pH and other parameters that clients can consult to optimize farming.
Sagri estimates soil pH and other parameters that clients can consult to optimize farming. (Photo courtesy of the company)
Tracking supply chain

Consumer giant Unilever is using satellite data to manage its supply chain. The company aims to eliminate deforestation in its procurement network, but it has been facing difficulties in identifying the location of farms and plantations and where raw materials are first processed. Unilever has teamed up with California-based geospatial data analysis company Orbital Insight since 2020 to analyze location data and other information about the palm oil procurement network. Palm oil is used as a raw material for foods and daily necessities.

Unilever directly tracks and analyses the flow of raw materials from individual farms, predicts the possibility of problems such as deforestation, and takes countermeasures. Currently, the project covers more than 1,500 oil mills throughout Southeast Asia. The company is also building partnerships across industries and sectors. These efforts are "necessary for the continuation of our business in the future," said a spokesperson of Unilever Japan.

An example of supply chain analysis.
An example of supply chain analysis. (Photo courtesy of Orbital Insight)
Assessing damage from natural disasters

Satellite data is also being used in the non-life insurance field. Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance uses satellite data to assess damage in the event of floods and other wide-area disasters. The company is "able to determine the extent of damage and the height of inundation for each policy in centimeter increments within 24 hours of the occurrence of a disaster" by combining such infomation as elevation, river flooding and SNS posts, according to a spokesperson. From 2020, the company has been collaborating with ICEYE, a Finnish startup that operates a small SAR satellite.

ICEYE has partnered with more than 20 non-life insurance companies in Japan and abroad in providing flood observation data, and the use of satellite data is expanding throughout the industry.

An example of assessment of flooding in July 2020 in Japan.
An example of assessment of flooding in July 2020 in Japan. (Photo courtesy of Tokio Marine & Nichido Fire Insurance)

The Japanese version of this infographic was published on Dec. 22, 2022.