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Big prospects for small satellites

Artist’s impression of the GIOVE-A probe, which was launched three years ago. (Courtesy: ESA).

By Michael Banks

This morning, in the huge exhibition hall at this year’s International Astronautical Congress, I caught up with Martin Sweeting, chief executive of Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) and chairman of the local organizing committee for this year’s event.

The company that he founded in 1985 at Surrey University focuses on building and operating “micro” satellites, which are around 100 kg in mass. Sweeting recalled how, back in the 1980s, people laughed at the idea of having smaller satellites. At the time, satellites were getting ever bigger, with larger scientific payloads on board. But the sceptics soon turned silent: the market for small commercial satellites has seen year-on-year growth, with SSTL itself having a market turnover of £21m in 2006.

In his talk yesterday evening at the congress, Sweeting compared the traditional large satellites as “dinosaurs” having themselves evolved from smaller satellites. Indeed, Sputnik – the world’s first artificial satellite – was the size of a beach ball.

I asked Sweeting if the comparison was apt, given that large satellites are still needed for landers to the Moon and Mars as well as for possible manned missions.

“The laws of physics dictate that you still need big apertures, for Hubble etc, so you need large satellites for that,” explained Sweeting. “But if you just look at Earth applications, then small satellites can do the same as a large satellite 5-10 years ago.” He then drew a comparsion with the computing industry, where super computers are still needed for certain mammoth tasks, whereas distributed computing systems, on the other hand, involve many equally effective, smaller, devices.

So successful has SSTL been that, in April this year, European space-technology giant EADS Astrium bought the company for an estimated price tag of $40-50m. The deal is not yet done, as it has to be approved by the European Commission. So when I asked Sweeting how close the deal is to being completed, he quickly questioned me if I had ever bought a house. (I haven’t, and in the current market won’t be doing for some time). Wheeling out another analogy, he compared the deal to buying a house. “[We’ve signed] all the paperwork, and now we are just waiting for the keys”. Sweeting expects the deal will be done and dusted by the end of the year.

One application of small satellites is in Earth observation: in 2002, for example, SSTL launched five satellites for the Disaster Monitoring Constellation. They currently provide daily coverage of a particular spot on Earth and have supported aid agencies during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004. Meanwhile, three years ago SSTL launched the 600kg GIOVE-A probe, which forms the first part of the European Space Agency’s global positioning system Galileo. But Sweeting is even eyeing the Moon. “There are no reasons,” he says,”why we can’t use the same techniques that we have developed for Earth observation to use it for the Moon.”

SSTL is now facing competition from “CubeSats” – tiny, 10cm3 satellites developed by California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University. They give universities the chance to launch instruments into space for as little as $50,000. However, Sweeting is confident that SSTL is keeping ahead in a growing market. “There is certainly room for more than one player. At the moment it’s one fish in a growing pond, but what we have to stay ahead with innovation.”

Next year’s astronautical congress is going to be held in Daejeon, Korea, and on that note I am just about to go to the Korean Food Research Institute stand for my first taste of space food, no doubt frozen kimchi .

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