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A Shining Star

Over the last 25 years, the Surrey Space Centre and SSTL have grown rapidly. Surrey Space Centre now has around 100 academic researchers and PhD students. SSTL employs 320 staff across four sites in South East England and, as of August 2010, has launched 34 spacecraft. The total export orders secured by SSTL, to date, amount to £490m, and turnover for 2009 was £36m.

In 2009, SSTL was acquired by EADS Astrium, although it remains a privately owned, independent British company within the EADS Astrium NV group. As part of the sale, the company has maintained strong links with the Surrey Space Centre at the University so that it can continue to capitalise on its research and innovation.

Space Economics

Satellites are becoming increasingly important for monitoring the state of the Earth, for telecommunications and for navigation. However, the cost of building and launching satellites has, previously, restricted their use.

Conventional satellites are big, bulky and expensive to build and launch, which has put them beyond the reach of many organisations that would benefit from using them, such as aid agencies monitoring disaster-stricken areas.

The University of Surrey changed the economics of space in the late 1970s when it pioneered the use of ‘commercial off-the-shelf’ (COTS) technologies to make smaller, yet highly advanced, satellites. This process took standard consumer technology, such as those used in personal computers, and adapted them to the unique environment of space. Until then, satellite equipment was purpose-built for space travel, at huge expense and taking many years, so the technology was often obsolete by the time of launch.

The first satellite built by the research team within the Electrical Engineering Department at the University of Surrey was UoSAT-1. It used COTS components and was launched in 1981 with the help of NASA. The team followed this up with a second satellite, UoSAT-2, which they built in just six months and launched in 1984.

Since then, SSTL has gone on to produce satellites for Earth observation and imaging, telecommunications and navigation, scientific research and instrument testing, for both civil and defence purposes, for customers all over the world.

Space to grow

The first two satellites were built and launched in 1981 and 1984, and were funded and owned by the University of Surrey. To secure commercial funding to continue the work of the Surrey Space Centre, Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) was formed in 1985. Since then all satellites built and launched by SSTL have been jointly funded with various organisations and countries.

Over the last 25 years, the Surrey Space Centre and SSTL have grown rapidly. Surrey Space Centre now has around 100 academic researchers and PhD students. SSTL employs 320 staff across four sites in South East England and, as of August 2010, has launched 34 spacecraft . The total export orders secured by SSTL, to date, amount to £490m, and turnover for 2009 was £36m.

In 2009, SSTL was acquired by EADS Astrium, although it remains a privately owned, independent British company within the EADS Astrium NV group. As part of the sale, the company has maintained strong links with the Surrey Space Centre at the University so that it can continue to capitalise on its research and innovation.

The Disaster Monitoring Constellation

As any expert, in any field will tell you, formulating an effective response to a problem depends on knowing where the problem is. Disaster relief is no exception to this rule. The University of Surrey and SSTL are at the forefront of efforts to use satellite imagery to inform the efforts of disaster relief agencies.

The Disaster Monitoring Constellation is a unique cooperation between partners that own satellites designed and built by SSTL and who share their data. DMC International Imaging coordinates the constellation to provide both high-quality commercial imaging services and rapid disaster monitoring programmes.

The Disaster Monitoring Constellation currently consists of:

  • Beijing-1
  • NigeriaSat-1
  • UK-DMC-1
  • UK-DMC-2
  • Deimos-1

Two new satellites, NigeriaSat-2 and NigeriaSat-X, will be launched into the constellation at the end of 2010.

A watching brief

Satellite data is useful because it enables governments and aid agencies to respond to real-time data on environmental areas, such as natural resource management, food security, biodiversity and air-quality forecasting.

As part of their membership of the constellation, all Disaster Monitoring Constellation members agree to provide 5% of capacity free for daily imaging of disaster areas. This data is used by Disaster Monitoring Constellation member nations and channelled to aid agencies and the UN through the International Charter for Space and Major Disasters.

Probably the best-publicised disaster where the Disaster Monitoring Constellation has helped is the South East Asian tsunami of 2004, where its imaging was used to provide data for mapping floodwater incursion and generating area-wide maps to guide the relief effort.

On 29 August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the United States, wreaking havoc in the states of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The first Disaster Monitoring Constellation image of the area was acquired on 2 September 2005, and was processed and delivered to the United States Geological Survey.

The Disaster Monitoring Constellation has also been used to help tackle environmental problems throughout the world, including monitoring coastal and inland erosion in Nigeria, tracking forest fires in Portugal and, since 2005, providing year-on-year monitoring of illegal logging activity in the Amazon rainforest for the Brazilian government. On a less reactive level, the system is also used routinely for agricultural control, mapping and environmental monitoring throughout the world.

New projects

In January 2010, SSTL won a contract to produce 14 advanced payloads for Europe’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) with partners, OHB System AG.

Europe’s GNSS programme is a global navigation satellite system being built by the European Space Agency (ESA) for the EU. The €3.4 billion project will provide both an alternative and a complement to the US Global Positioning System (GPS) and Russia GLONASS.

The European GNSS system is intended to provide more precise measurements than those available through GPS or GLONASS. By offering dual frequencies as standard, it will deliver real-time positioning accuracy down to one metre. The service will be guaranteed under all but the most extreme circumstances, making it suitable for applications where safety is crucial such as running trains, guiding cars and landing aircraft.

The programme will provide the EU with an independent positioning system on which it can rely. Like the US GPS, the European GNSS services will be free and open to everyone. However, the highest-accuracy capabilities will be restricted to military use and paying commercial users.

A Star of the Knight

The journey began when a research student at the University of Surrey, Professor Sir Martin Sweeting showed that satellites can be made small, compact and at a low cost by taking advantage of the development of smaller and more robust electronics.

Sir Martin originally built a small, low cost satellite as a part-time interest; his first satellite (UoSAT-1) was successfully placed in Earth orbit and transmitted signals back to the base station at Surrey University. His second satellite, launched in 1984, is still transmitting signals back to Earth 26 years later! Following his early research, Sir Martin founded Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd and, in 2002, was knighted in recognition of his pioneering work.

Timeline

1979: Work began on the “UoSAT” University of Surrey satellite

1981: Launch of UoSAT-1 by NASA

1984: Launch of UoSAT-2 by NASA

1985: SSTL incorporated

1992: Provided first training programme (mix of hands-on and academic training to customer’s spacecraft engineers), as part of the KITSAT-1 mission for South Korea.

2002: Launched the first Disaster Monitoring Constellation satellite – AlSat-1 for Algeria.

2005: Built and launched TopSat under contract to QinetiQ for BNSC & UK MoD

2005: GIOVE-A launched, test-bed navigation satellite manufactured by SSTL for ESA’s GNSS programme

2008: 5 RapidEye satellite constellation launched, platforms manufactured by SSTL under contract to MacDonald Dettweiler

2008: SSTL set up a US subsidiary, Surrey Satellite Technology LLC with offices in Denver, Colorado.

2009: EADS Astrium NV bought a 99% shareholding in SSTL from the University of Surrey, allowing the Company to fulfil its growth potential.

2010: SSTL won a contract to produce 14 advanced payloads for Europe’s Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) with partners, OHB System AG

Key Facts and Figures

SSTL is a privately owned independent British company within the EADS Astrium NV group.

EADS Astrium NV owns 99% of the shares. The University of Surrey owns 1% of the shares

SSTL employs 320 staff across 4 sites in South East England.

SSTL has launched 34 spacecraft [as at August 2010]. For a full list of satellites launched, see http://www.sstl.co.uk/heritage/sstl-missions

NigeriaSat-2 for NASRDA (National Space Research & Development Agency (Government of Federal Republic of Nigeria). NigeriaSat-2 is due for launch in Quarter 4 2010 on a Dnepr rocket from Yasny.

NigeriaSat-X for NASRDA and is also is due for launch in Quarter 4 2010 on a Dnepr rocket from Yasny.

Quotes

Dr Tanya Vladimirova, Reader in Electronic Engineering at the Surrey Space Centre, says “Satellites flying in cross-linked formations could scan the Earth more efficiently for natural disasters, using some of the technologies we have developed to coordinate their operations in orbit.“

“Satellite technology is already playing a key role in helping to quantify and manage environmental challenges around the world,” explains Dr Underwood. “We are working to make that contribution more effective.”

“The headline objective of the constellation is to support the logistics of disaster relief,” explains Dr Craig Underwood, Deputy Director of the Surrey Space Centre. “But it also provides independent daily imaging capability to the partner nations.”

Lord Drayson, Former Science and Innovation Minister, said, “The contract award to SSTL to supply payloads for Europe’s Global Navigation Satellite System is great news for SSTL and the British space industry. The contract for 14 satellite payloads will cement their position as a key player in this booming industry.”