SSTL takes smallsats from hobby-shop enterprise to commercial success
Over the last 20 years, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) has vastly expanded the potential for what smallsats can do in the areas of navigation, Earth observation and military applications.
Formed in the mid-1980s in response to a lack of government funding for U.K. space programs, SSTL has taken smallsats from a boutique enterprise championed by graduate students at the University of Surrey to a company that develops spacecraft for government and commercial operational use.
“We formed SSTL because the U.K. had decided to put all its national funding into the European Space Agency [ESA], and consequently all the national programs were essentially terminated,” says SSTL Executive Chairman Martin Sweeting. “We realized if we were to continue our work, we had to get external funding.”
Co-located with the university in Guilford, England, Sweeting says SSTL maintains close ties with the academic space center. “They act as our research group,” he says.
No longer a proving ground for new technologies, SSTL has launched 37 spacecraft to orbit and is producing 22 operational navigation payloads for Europe's Galileo satellite constellation. To keep pace with growing demand, the company recently expanded production with a new facility at Guilford.
“We'll be producing a satellite every six weeks,” says Phil Davies, business development director at SSTL.
The company is also developing a next-gen optical system with a Chinese customer that leases imaging capacity on three of SSTL's satellites. Based on SSTL's smallsat platform, the system will be part of the international Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC), which uses optical sensors for commercial imaging and disaster mitigation. “It's a novel business model in which we will actually own the satellites and lease capacity,” Davies says.
Surrey has become such a promising commercial enterprise that it was snapped up several years ago byAstrium. Taking advantage of Astrium's expertise in radar-imaging, SSTL recently started work on a lightweight, low-cost platform dubbed NovaSAR to support synthetic aperture radar-imaging instruments. The British government will spend £21 million ($33 million) as seed money to help SSTL and Astrium U.K. develop the first NovaSAR satellite, hoping to leverage another $240 million in investment and a return of more than $1.6 billion over the next 10 years.
Applying the same approach used for its optical imaging satellite platform, NovaSAR is designed to cost only 20% of today's going rate for radar imaging satellites. “The antenna is three meters by one meter [9.8 ft. X 3.3 ft.], the whole thing weighs 400 kg [880 lb.] and operates in S-band,” Davies says. “We see this as bringing a radar capability to the DMC.”
Before year-end, SSTL hopes to launch TechDemoSat-1 (TDS-1) as a testbed for new instruments and technologies. Roughly the size of a dishwasher and weighing just 150 kg, TDS-1 will carry a minimum of eight payloads and a mixture of heritage and new development systems.
SSTL also hopes to see orbited the first of two nanosatellites, STRaND-1, which will use a Google/Nexus cell phone and components from the XBOX Kinect games controller to scan the local area and provide situational awareness on three axes, eventually allowing the nanosat to dock with its twin, STRaND-2. The low-cost STRaND satellites could serve as “space building blocks” that could be stacked together and reconfigured to build larger, modular spacecraft.
A more long-term project is SSTL's small geostationary comsat platform. Weighing 2,500 kg and offering roughly 4.5 kw, the spacecraft is designed to last 15 years in orbit and to complement Astrium's larger Eurostar-3000 satellite bus. Cofinanced with €8.6 million ($10.7 million) from ESA, the platform will launch initially within 24-30 months of order, though Davies says the goal is a turnaround of about 18 months.
“We haven't been using technology to produce something more advanced, but as a way of reducing cost,” he says.SSTL has launched 37 spacecraft to orbit and is producing 22 operational payloads for Europe's Galileo