Since the 1960’s until recently, global environmental monitoring satellites have been slow and expensive to produce, test, launch and operate. In the 1960’s the United States introduced the first environmental-monitoring satellites. The initially classified Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) launched in the late 1960’s still operates large polar-orbiting satellites. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) introduced the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) and Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite (POES). The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) introduced the Landsat polar-orbiting satellites in the early 1970’s, and the Earth Observing System (EOS) polar-orbiting satellites in the 1990’s. All use large satellite “buses” carrying numerous large instruments. They take a decade to develop, cost ~$1B, and require ~$100M dedicated launches and large, complicated and expensive ground-systems to receive and process their data.
In the late 1980’s, the “small satellite” was introduced via a private-public partnership to develop the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-View Sensor (SeaWiFS). Orbital Sciences Corporation developed SeaWiFS, launched in 1997 and operated very successfully (anecdotally the ocean-color “gold standard”) until 2013 via a 1991 NASA data-purchase agreement. SeaWiFS cost ~$100M to develop and launch and used a small, relatively inexpensive privately-operated ground station.
Since SeaWiFS, the 10x10x10cm CubeSat was introduced to train students in satellite technology. CubeSats have since been developed for “operational” applications. The $2M SeaHawk program scheduled for 2018 launch illustrates this trend. At that almost incredibly low cost, two global coastal-ocean color 3U (30x10x10cm) CubeSats will address part of the National Academy’s 2011 sustained global ocean-color research recommendations. SeaHawk is only one of several scientific satellites under development, and we believe represents a trend towards replacement of large satellites by small, low-cost systems: the New Normal.