Surrey Satellite takes the small route to the high ground

Micro-satellites specialist Surrey Satellite Technology hopes soon to be preparing for launch of a new synthetic aperture radar payload that could bring a dramatic new capability to its Earth observation customers. A SAR-capable spacecraft has been in development by the company since 2009. SSTL partner Astrium and the Surrey Space Centre made payload tests on an airborne platform last year and the payload and platform this February passed its preliminary design review, so a spacecraft could be available for launch in 2013.

SSTL's head of Earth observation Luis Gomes told a London meeting of users of the Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC) including from Algeria, Nigeria, Spain, the UK and China, for which SSTL has built and launched eight satellites since 2000 - that SAR technology spacecraft has the potential to bring a new level of capability to the constellation.

Micro-satellites certainly face greater risks of failure than larger, more expensive units but, Gomes sees the lower cost of design, construction and launch as more than making up for risk to many users. But with launch costs accounting for 40% or more of a typical mission price tag, finding new, low-cost launch options - which could include launches from some of the suborbital vehicles now under development - is the key to giving more users access to space through micro-satellites, he adds.

Market figures presented by SSTL show the Earth observation market to be worth $930 million yearly, with more than 80% accounted for by governments and two-thirds by militaries. Governments and militaries may be the natural customers for Earth observation capabilities, but neither are good at commercial exploitation of the data. So with barely $165 million spent yearly by private customers Gomes is probably right that finding ways to cut launch costs would expand the market.


Published by: Flight international on March 07, 2011

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