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The potential of small satellites for scientific and astronomical discovery


The development of small satellites for telecommunication constellations in low-Earth orbit provides a unique opportunity to the astronomical community. Mass-produced, commercial satellite platforms can host dedicated scientific payloads and expand access to space-based astronomy. Technologies critical to the development of small orbital instruments have been demonstrated by exploratory missions. By employing these capabilities and techniques in mass-produced spacecraft, terrestrial limitations such as geography, atmosphere and planetary motion can be overcome at a fraction of the cost of traditional space-based astronomy missions. Instruments could be deployed across swarms, or even constellations, of small, cheap and reliably produced spacecraft. With the continuing democratization of space, it is now timely and opportune to consider the approaches necessary to maximize the scientific potential of innovations driven by the commercial sector.

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We gratefully acknowledge the invaluable assistance, advice and critical feedback provided by R. E. Simmonds in preparing this manuscript.

Author information




P.A. carried out the research, writing and editing of the manuscript. J.W.E. compiled the open issues draft analysis. Project planning and commercial information was sourced by M.T.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Philip Allen.

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Competing interests

The authors declare the following competing interests: P.A., J.W.E. and M.T. are paid employees of Airbus Defence and Space Ltd, part of the Airbus Group which owns shares in the joint venture OneWeb Satellites, the manufacturer of the ArrOW platform.

Additional information

Peer review information Nature Astronomy thanks Nigel Bannister and Bruce Yost for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

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Allen, P., Wickham-Eade, J. & Trichas, M. The potential of small satellites for scientific and astronomical discovery. Nat Astron 4, 1039–1042 (2020).

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