Although SSTL was founded as a commercial company 22 years ago, it all began in 1979, when micro electronics was enabling technology.
Professor Sir Martin Sweeting
Surrey Satellite Technologies Ltd. (SSTL), UK
Q. Your group’s research interests turned out to be a successful business model, leading SSTL’s incep- tion. How did this transforma- tion come about?
Although SSTL was founded as a commercial company 22 years ago, it all began in 1979, when micro electronics was enabling technology. A group of young researchers and radio enthusiasts started developing satellites with high capabilities but at low cost and with small mass. At that time satellites were getting larger and more expensive and it seemed that there was an opportunity to reverse the trend by using micro electronics, building smaller satellites that would be accessible and affordable by universities, research organisations and developing countries whose governments aspired to a space programme.
Q. What were the early challenges?
The financial challenges in the beginning were quite severe, mainly because we had no money and started with only 100 pounds! We received a lot of support from industry and once the company was formed we began working with some developing countries, including Korea, Malaysia and Singapore, who were interested in having access to this technique and technology. These partnerships evolved over a period of time and that allowed us to generate revenues and then slowly build up the company. The company grew organically and consequently slowly. It took almost 10 years to reach a position where we could employ 25- 30 people and begin reinvesting the profits year by year. We never went out to find venture capital or any other type of investment, but little by little, SSTL began to grow as a commercial player in the small satellite marketplace.
Technology and Evolution
Q. What were the strate- gies in further strength- ening of the technology?
We developed a “know-how” transfer and training program, with a number of countries as the main point for our early work and as the core part of our activity. SSTL worked with engineers from these countries, helping them to develop their own spacecraft and to acquire technology know-how using commercial off the shelf technologies. By the late 1990’s we had also built a number of spacecraft for the French Ministry of Defence and the US Air Force. In 2000, the application of these small satellites in the Earth Observation (EO) sector started to become very apparent. We began building the now operational Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC) and, most recently, have built the first of the Galileo satellites for Europe. At present knowhow transfer accounts for 60% of our business with 40% commercial missions and systems.
Q. What factors determined the development of GIOVE-A at SSTL?
The European Commission (EC) and the European Space Agency (ESA) realised in July 2003 that if they were not able to use the allotted frequency by June 2006, they would lose it. They were also concerned that the large satellite manufacturers could not meet their deadline. SSTL bid for and won the contract to build GIOVE-A, whilst a conventional industry consortium was awarded a parallel contract for GIOVE-B: The cost of SSTL’s GIOVE-A proposal was approximately onethird of the cost of the European consortium submission. With just a 30-month schedule and a budget of less than 30 million Euros, SSTL completed the satellite on time, within budget. GIOVE-A was launched on December 28th 2005, remains operational and has been transmitting Galileo signals from space for over 18 months, enabling the ground equipment suppliers to develop their products. Because of the delays in GIOVE-B (the latest indications point to a launch early in 2008). SSTL was awarded a second satellite contract earlier this year by ESA for GIOVE-A2.
Away from GIOVE, SSTL believes it is essential to have some Galileo services available in a reasonable timeframe and is discussing its ideas for early services with ESA and the EC.
Q. How do you see the future prospect of Galileo?
The whole idea of what to do with the Galileo navigation system is under debate in view of the delays, the high costs proposed and the lack of competition. Consequently, there are now serious talks about what will happen. Personally, I think that Galileo is important for Europe and if done in the right way and with true competition, Europe can afford it. I believe that there’s going to be some very serious thinking about the business case for constructing the Galileo system. It is essentially a European political business decision to be taken with the EC. SSTL is very happy to help ESA and the EC by offering a lower cost and quicker route to implementing Galileo. So once the politics have been sorted out, we are here to help.
Q. What are the future prospects of the Disas- ter Monitoring Constellation (DMC)?
The first generation of the DMC satellites have been operating very successfully for over 3 years now and we are in the process of constructing the 2nd generation DMC. The Beijing-1 satellite launched 2 years ago is the forerunner of the second generation DMC satellites and has a 30 m Wide Area Multispectral (WAMS) imaging capability and a 4 m panchromatic camera to provide high resolution data. A new satellite for Nigeria will be launched within the next 18 months and this will also provide the 30 m WAMS data and 2 .5 m panchromatic data. The future DMC satellites will increase the WAMS camera’s spatial resolution from 30 to 22 m. The next constellation will therefore have increased resolution with medium resolution multispectral and high resolution panchromatic alongside. We are also talking to other countries about the possibility of joining the 2nd generation DMC. Apart from DMC, we are also building three EO satellites for the Federal Space Agency of Russia which will be operating it as part of Russia’s national activities. SSTL built the UK TopSat satellite, launched in 2005, which has 2.5 m panchromatic and 5 m multispectral imaging, providing high resolution image data for the UK government. TopSat has recently been brought in alongside the DMC satellites to provide high resolution data.
Exploring the Unknown
Q. Why did SSTL enter into space missions, Moon- Lite and Moonraker?
SSTL has actually been working in the background on these mission proposals for the last 10 years. We recognise that small satellites can help reduce the cost of exploration of the solar system and really help some of the countries interested in exploring outer space. We can provide a very useful supporting role to help reduce some of the cost and speed up the program through the use of small satellite technologies and techniques. The UK cannot fund large exploration projects alone – even the larger nations find it very difficult to fund these by themselves – and there is a role for smaller nations to contribute and provide specialist services. These nations might contribute to the level that is commensurate with their size, economy and policies. The UK has specialist strengths in small satellites, robotics, communications and space science instrumentation – we can therefore contribute significantly to the overall international exploration effort through small national space missions addressing niche areas and applications.
Q. What according to you would ‘govern’ the future of space programmes in a global perspective?
Well, I have noticed over the last decade that space is becoming increasingly integrated into our everyday life. Globally space is becoming increasingly important and I think that we can see it continuing to give benefits in terms of climate change, environmental monitoring, resource management and particularly water management. And those are going to be some of the critical topics in the next decade. But I believe that we will also see satellites used increasingly and more widespread for security activities. Looking to the future we will see more satellites carrying out a range of individual tasks but operating in networks, with a number of small satellite constellations. This will allow mankind to gain a greater understanding of space and the Earth.