Sitting in his new offices Professor Sir Martin Sweeting, group chief executive of small satellite manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL), is describing the process that the US international traffic of arms regulations (ITAR) imposes on foreign suppliers. “It’s a kind of guessing game. They [the US customer] can’t tell you what they want, you have to try and guess”.

Surrey Satellite Technology group chief executive

Sir Martin Sweeting

A spin-off company from the UK's University of Surrey, SSTL has teamed with the US wing of BAE Systems to provide to the US military the small, less than 1,000kg (2,200lb) mass, satellites, for which it is famous.

It is in meetings with this US company that it has most recently played the ITAR guessing game; but SSTL is ready to jump through these hoops for what it is sees as a market with great potential.

“We are very interested in [the US department of defence’s (DoD)] responsive space programmes,” says Sweeting, who is also director of Surrey university's Space Centre.
Responsive space is viewed by the academic turned entrepreneur as not just requiring a rapid ability to launch but a rapid ability to build mission specific spacecraft. “Most conflicts emerge with some warning. You have months to prepare.”

The scenario would see a modular satellite design that SSTL could bolt together for the DoD in 3-4 months.

This links in with two key objectives the company has, driving down satellite development and build time and access to a low cost launcher.

While larger complex satellites can take years to develop, test and launch, “generally speaking we are 18 months, sometimes, 15 [from concept to spacecraft delivery]. We want to get that lower,” says Sweeting.

He envisages a time when the pacing item for a satellite’s deployment will not be the spacecraft itself but a customer’s financing arrangements or the launch preparations.

To tackle this last potential obstacle Sweeting invited Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) chief executive Elon Musk to buy 11% of SSTL. “Two years ago we have some private equity interest. We rejected a couple of offers [but] we had had prior links with Elon.”

Sweeting also views Musk’s company as “doing for launchers what we are doing [for satellites]. We have a common strategic interest,” meaning reducing product costs and time to delivery.

SpaceX is selling launches on its 570kg low Earth orbit Falcon 1 rocket  for $6.7 million, substantially less than that offered by US and Russian competitors.

And SSTL needs SpaceX because its Falcon, although yet to have a successful launch, is a US vehicle and the DoD will only use American-made boosters.

For SSTL SpaceX’s launcher is to become part of an end-to-end capability, with SSTL offering a complete service from satellite concept, to development and build, to launch, commissioning, operation and data exploitation.

It’s already moved into the data services market. Selected to supply the satellites for the five-nation Earth observation Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC) it formed the DMC international imaging (DMCii) company to sell its images. The logic of providing an end-to-end service is SSTL’s belief that constellations of small spacecraft are the future of satellite services. SSTL’s marketing director Wei Sun, pointing to the company’s experience with DMC, says, “The advantage for us is the constellation.“

In Sweeting and Sun's analysis low Earth orbit communication constellations have dominated past markets, Earth observation is the "hot product of the day” but the future opportunities are in new military requirements and the use of small satellites to replenish constellation's that previously had larger spacecraft.

Key to SSTL's future is Sweeting's aim to make customers understand how capable small satellites are becoming. "It was thought you could only achieve 10m [33ft] resolution [with small satellites] and now we're down to 2m." and to emphasise this his company has entered into a research project with the UK's Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council to examine small spacecraft for interplanetary missions. 



Source: Flight International