Integrating Innovative Solutions on Small Satellite Missions

NanoAvionics engineer testing a16U nanosatellite. Source: NanoAvionics
Leveraging Satellite Technology for Africa’s Sustainable Development 

Since the early days of space adoption in Africa, wholly by state actors, space and its derived data have continuously improved the continent’s economic growth and development. The current status, however, further highlights the importance of space infrastructures addressing Africa’s socio-economic challenges and a medium to propagate Africa’s development, as described in Africa’s Agenda 2063 – a 50-year blueprint for transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future.

For instance, communication satellites have enabled Africans to pave the way for abundant digital opportunities across the continent by connecting the unconnected in some of the continent’s most underserved and remote locations. This is possible through the sturdy digital services provided by communication satellites that allow for reliable internet access and innovative solutions such as smart agriculture and precision farming to address some of the continent’s biggest challenges.

Also, space technologies, predominantly Earth observation (EO) images and data are employed against climate change, disasters and disease outbreaks in Africa. Several African countries have embraced EO data to reduce the risk and loss due to extreme weather events by investing in technologies that support climate adaptation and provide accurate and timely weather forecasts to any individual, business, or government. Furthermore, with satellite data becoming more open-source, the availability makes weather forecasts and policy decision-making easier and more proactive, making targeted relief programmes or policies more successful.

In addition, GNSS technologies have been used significantly in Africa to support various applications, including aviation, transport, land management, maritime safety, and oil and mining industries, to mention a few. Currently, the continent is actively developing the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), implementing and adopting Satellite Based Augmentation Systems (SBAS) services across the continent.

To date, 13 African countries have launched 48 satellites, with varying thematic purposes, including communication, Earth observation, military surveillance and technology demonstration missions.

Cost and number of satellites launched by country. Source: Space in Africa’s data portal (2022)
Distribution of satellites launched by mission type. Source: Space in Africa’s data portal (2022)
Small Satellite Trends in Africa

Currently, space activities in Africa are characterised by governments and private sector companies (NewSpace companies) to improve the existing technologies and reduce the cost of manufacturing space systems and reaching orbit. 

This has led to the development of miniature satellites and other infrastructures and solutions, positioning the continent as an emerging market for the illimitable potential of space exploration. Also, a reduction in the satellite sizes has led to producing several less expensive space crafts designed to place these satellites into orbit. This new venture also signals a considerable reduction in the cost of launching satellites, which many emerging space-faring countries (in Africa) are beginning to make the most of.

Currently, 12 African countries have launched 31 small satellites into space, accounting for approximately 66% of all satellites launched in Africa.

Distribution of small satellites by countries. Source: Space in Africa’s data portal (2022)
Cost of small satellites by country. Source: Space in Africa’s data portal (2022)

Furthermore, small satellite development usually involves an African country partnering with one (or more) foreign satellite manufacturing companies to build these satellites. These agreements sometimes allow African states to opt for technology transfer during satellite manufacturing rather than simply purchasing the satellite. With this, engineers from these African states work side-by-side with the foreign satellite development team, with intensive training in different areas of space technology development, including satellite design, manufacture, integration, testing and managing a ground station.

Local engineers trained on some select small satellite projects in Africa. Source: Space in Africa’s data portal (2022)

One of such potential partners is NanoAvionics, a global leader in small satellite manufacturing and mission integration for nano and microsatellites (up to 200 kg in weight). The company has gained extensive experience in delivering end-to-end mission infrastructure to governments, businesses, and educational institutions globally. 

NanoAvionics’ Small Satellite Service Offerings; a Perfect Fit for Africa

NanoAvionics’ platforms are an easy fit for Africans, especially those working on their first project, because they are easily configurable to integrate the most commercially available remote sensing payloads and are adaptable to meet specific mission needs. In addition, NanoAvionics’ modular architecture allows businesses and organisations to exploit small satellite technology and quickly develop resilient and affordable space capabilities.

NanoAvionics engineer with 3U nanosatellite. Source: NanoAvionics

NanoAvionics’ flight-proven, modular satellite buses range in size from 3U nanosatellites (10x10x30cm) to 220kg microsatellites. Their mission services cover spacecraft hardware, payload integration, testing programs, launch, and satellite operations. With more than 170 employees across four sophisticated facilities globally in North America, Europe, and the United Kingdom, NanoAvionics has completed over 110 successful satellite missions and commercial projects.

Integrating Innovative Solutions on Small Satellite Missions

From Global Positioning and Navigating Systems (GNSS) to long-distance phone calls, satellites play an essential role in our everyday lives. Historically, these services have been incorporated into large satellites, which were expensive, multi-ton giants until two decades ago, when the number of small satellites launched annually grew from just a handful to more than one thousand. The miniaturisation of satellite technology and lowering launch costs have driven this exponential growth by creating new benefits for space projects, such as reduced costs, shorter development cycles, rapid technological improvement, and new operating models. Here are some examples of NanoAvionics’ innovative small satellite solutions. 

NanoAvionics small satellite buses. Source: NanoAvionics
  • Small satellites for advanced communications, IoT & machine-machine communications

NanoAvionics is at the forefront of this revolution, having worked on multiple advanced communications missions, including IoT and machine-to-machine communication constellations. Due to their low Earth orbits, these small satellite constellations enable low-latency networks that can process high data volumes with minimal delay. And unlike ground networks, satellites have an unobstructed view of the entire surface of the Earth, bringing connectivity to remote regions at low costs.

  • Improved capabilities of small satellites for EO missions

The small satellite revolution has also inspired many companies to produce commercial off-the-shelf imagers for Earth observation missions and sparked many innovations in space optics and imaging sensors. NanoAvionics has helped multiple organisations to take these camera technologies to space and deliver insights about soil, agriculture, water, marine life, electricity generation, and other novel applications. The low Earth orbit of these satellites helps them get a closer look at the environmental and logistical challenges humanity faces on the ground. Also, with the more frequent revisit time (time elapsed between observations of the same point on Earth by a satellite), small satellites are the most effective way of tracking observable changes on the surface of our planet, especially in remote regions or areas that cover long distances.

To help more organisations benefit from the orbital perspective, NanoAvionics is also open to working with universities, organisations, or businesses on knowledge transfer programmes, which can help grow the continent’s engineering capabilities, attract new investments, and improve national security and independence. Over the years, NanoAvionics has partnered with countries in Northern Africa, Mexico (Atlacomulco Municipality), Norway (NTNU SmallSat Laboratory), Lithuania, and multiple countries in the Middle East.

Researchers from NTNU testing their 6U nanosatellite at NanoAvionics facilities. Source: NanoAvionics

In recent times, faster satellite manufacturing processes have been a topic of discussion for academics and industry leaders alike, with the hopes of optimising the satellite manufacturing periods on the continent. With partners such as NanoAvionics, Africa is well on course to ensure that each participating country develops the technical capacity to build and operate space systems optimally.


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