Small Satellites Next Big Thing in Space Technology

Devices Being Increasingly Used for Earth Observation and Imagery

The space technology and broadcast market is currently undergoing a major transformation as small satellites take on most of the capacity and functions of larger ones, including earth observation and imaging, a space technology forum heard in the capital yesterday.

Panellists at the Global Space and Satellite Forum (GSSF) said that GCC countries like the UAE, which have an abundance of financial resources, can therefore benefit greatly from the new business models emerging in the small satellite industry.

The three-day forum, which kicked off in the capital yesterday, saw academicians, investors and government representatives discuss latest trends, regulatory frameworks and commercial opportunities and developments in space and satellite technology.

Shaikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, inaugurated the GSSF conference and called upon greater private enterprise and further innovation within the space industry.

"In addition, policies and regulations regarding space resource use must be equitable so that they continue to encourage innovation within the sector," he added.

UAE development

Within the UAE, the Emirates Institute of Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST) launched the country's first earth observation satellite, DubaiSat-1, in mid-2009. Abu Dhabi-based Thuraya has also previously launched a series of communication satellites, while Al Yah Satellite Communications Company's (Yahsat) Y1A was launched last month.

"This means the UAE has the financial resources to not only launch satellites for immediate commercial return but also develop a local space industry that can invest in research and development," Sir Martin Sweeting, executive chairman of UK-based small satellite developer Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) told Gulf News.

According to Sweeting, small satellites are currently revolutionising the earth observation or imagery sector worldwide.

"Because earth observation was first only used by national governments, commercial and individual users took a while to realise the possible benefits beyond purely national security and disaster management. However, people are slowly becoming aware of the potential of satellite imagery for other purposes, including satellites that can be used for disaster management, imagery, land monitoring, urban planning, maritime surveillance, etc," he said.

"For example, satellite images can help farmers determine the exact amount of fertiliser and its required distribution to maximise crop yields. On the other hand, a family can check on the surroundings of their holiday destination to ensure that they do not end up having a wasted holiday in an unsuitable location. The costs of acquiring the satellite image is minimal in both these cases when compared to the crop yields or possible losses avoided," Sweeting added.


The space technology expert also said that the space imagery industry was soon likely to resemble the communication satellite industry.

"Companies that develop and operate communication satellites typically also lease out their capacity to other users, and SSTL is currently working on a business model to be launched in 2014 that will lease a constellation of small imagery satellites to a mixed basket of users. The first three satellites we will launch have already been fully leased," he said.

"SSTL already operates a constellation of small satellites for disaster management purposes, and these are owned by six countries, including Algeria and China. The difference between this constellation and the new one is that the new set will be privately owned and leased out for a range of uses," he explained.

About 43 countries have already launched small satellites."Within the next 10 years, imagery satellites will be viably used in a commercial manner, as the capacity and technology gap between large and small satellites continues to shrink," Sweeting said.

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