Surrey Satellite Technology is funding the development and launch of a new MiniBus space platform.


SMALLER, FASTER, CHEAPER - these are the qualities by which the products entering the burgeoning "smallsat" market are described. Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) is one of the pack leaders; indeed, it helped to create the market (Flight International, 24-30 August 1994). The Guildford, UK based company has spearheaded the movement towards providing more affordable access to space for the small commercial, research or government user.

The company pioneered the development and launch of a range of 50kg-class micro-satellites, with a unit price of as little as $2 million. These multi-purpose, modular satellites have been used to demonstrate successfully many applications, including medium-resolution remote-sensing imaging, store-and-forward communications, radiation studies and technology demonstration. "These spacecraft directly address the market for users and payloads that currently cannot afford a dedicated platform or launch," says Mark Allery, SSTL's business-development manager.

SSTL now plans to fund the development and launch of the first MiniBus platform, a larger spacecraft (in the 250-450kg range), which will enhance the applications proven by the microsatellites and enlarge the user community. It is teaming with Russia's Khrunichev to market a small-satellite service to low-Earth orbit, using its MiniBus and the Khrunichev Rokot launcher. The satellite will cost about £4 million ($6.4 million), and the launch another £2 million. "Affordable access to space is the key to its marketability," says Allery.

Micro-satellite piggyback rides with major satellite payloads on the Ariane 4 cost about $500,000, "...but you don't go exactly where and when you want to", says Allery. Dedicated launches are the ideal, provided that they are cheap enough. A US Pegasus launch of a micro-satellite flying as an auxiliary payload alone would cost about $5 million, for example. Cheaper Russian rockets have the edge.


The first MiniBus demonstration flight is scheduled for the third quarter of 1996. The 275kg craft will carry multi-spectral digital-imaging cameras, with a target resolution of 50m (150ft), for land-resource planning and national security, and store-and-forward communications channels.

The MiniBus will be fitted with SSTL's bi-propellant rocket motor for in-orbit manoeuvring, and a later flight will be used to demonstrate the company's new hybrid rocket motor (Flight International, 24-30 May).

The MiniBus, could be used by customers, for a wide range of applications. It could support synthetic-aperture-radar missions for 100m all-weather remote sensing, ideal for monitoring shipping routes. MiniBus craft could be used for dedicated ozone-monitoring, as electronic-mail satellites, or for carrying science payloads.

Launched into geostationary orbit, a MiniBus could even provide real-time communications for customers requiring an independent, regional service, with two Ku-band transponders with a 7¡ regional beam to very-small-aperture terminals. The provision of space-based global-positioning-system (GPS) navigation services is another possibility.

SSTL is convinced that there is a market for small satellites, especially for remote sensing applications not catered for by larger systems such as the Spot and Landsat.

SSTL-built micro-satellites, Korea's Kitsat 1 and 2 and Portugal's Posat 1, are equipped with wide-angle and telephoto cameras which can take 2km (1nm)-resolution images, with an ability to magnify a specific area to a 200m resolution, and detect objects as small as 50m wide. Multi-spectral cameras on a new satellite, the Chilean FASatAlpha, to be launched in August, will be able to decrease this resolution to 15m.

Not all users of remote-sensing images want high-resolution, esoteric and expensive computer-manipulated or processed-image products, at $2,000 each, derived from the Spot or Landsat. These can also be delayed by processing and their content controlled before issue. There is another market, says SSTL.

Customers want to access the data quickly, cheaply and to have control over of the data. Some users may simply need to track icebergs, or monitor regularly coastal erosion, pollution, forest fires or silting rivers. "We are not out to compete with Spot or Landsat, but to create a new market to complement these systems," Allery adds.


The introduction of small communications satellites for data-messaging services, such as the US Orbcomms, has proved what SSTL was claiming over 15 years ago, that the "potential of modern electronics and innovative satellite design, could revolutionise access to space", says Professor Martin Sweeting, SSTL's managing director, recent recipient of an OBE and the Royal Academy of Engineering's Silver Medal for his innovative services to the UK's space industry.

"Not every satellite needs to be huge and expensive like the Hubble Space Telescope and, throughout the industry, people are starting to realise this," he says. The second SSTL satellite, the UoSAT 2, launched over ten years ago, is still being used to demonstrate store-and-forward communications, using what was the first modern digital-communications payload. Another satellite, the Healthsat 2, launched in 1993, provides store-and-forward communications, for medical and disaster-relief teams in remote areas, for the SatelLife HealthNet satellite-communications network. The S-80/T satellite, built for French space agency CNES, and launched in 1992, is being used to evaluate VHF low-Earth- orbiting communications services.

The company has already built and launched 11 satellites. The Cerise, a military electronic monitoring research micro-satellite, built for Alcatel and the French defence ministry (DME) by SSTL, was placed into polar orbit by an Ariane 40 booster, on 7 July. The Cerise was flown piggyback with the French Helios 1 reconnaissance satellite.

The twelfth craft, the Chilean air force's FASatAlpha, is to ride piggyback with the Sich spacecraft into a 650km, 82.5°-inclination orbit aboard a Ukrainian Tsyklon booster, from Russia's Plesetsk Cosmodrome, in August. FASatAlpha carries an ozone-monitoring payload, digital-imaging cameras, a new solid-state recorder and a GPS payload.

SSTL is working on a Phase B contract with Alcatel and the DME for the Clementine military micro-satellite, which is likely to be flown with the Helios 2. A technology-transfer contract to build a third micro-satellite for South Korea is being discussed, Allery says.

The micro-satellites were created from modest beginnings in a University of Surrey electronics laboratory in 1979. The first of five University-based satellites, the UoSAT 1, was launched by a US Delta in 1981.

SSTL - which Sweeting established in 1985 - has become an established independent company operating from the University, and pumping funds back to its roots, enabling postgraduates to work on satellite and space technology. It has put 50% of the funds into the development of the University's Centre for Satellite Engineering and Research, including research-and-development (R&D) laboratories, clean rooms, a satellite ground-control station. $1 million a year is invested in satellite R&D. Sweeting says that SSTL can unite high-technology space engineering with the teaching and research expertise of the University to help emerging space nations to take their first steps into the space age.


This philosophy has formed the basis of technology-transfer contracts for micro-satellites with Chile, Portugal and South Korea. The latest satellite, the FASatAlpha, was built under a $4.5 million contract with the Chilean air force for joint manufacture under a technology-transfer deal involving training for six Chilean air force officers, and including installation of a ground station in Chile. Other satellites, such as the Cerise, Healthsat 2 and S-80/T, were provided as conventional commercial sales.

SSTL has grown despite a worldwide reduction in space budgets. It has a staff of 50 and an annual turnover of $5 million. "Shrinking space budgets focus attention on cost-effective engineering, and SSTL has more than a decade of experience," says Sweeting.

Despite the introduction of the MiniBus, SSTL still expects to provide three to four micro-satellites a year to both technology-transfer and commercial customers worldwide.

As for the future, Sweeting hopes to place an SSTL satellite into orbit around the Moon before 2000. "There is no practical reason why Britain cannot mount an inexpensive, scientifically meaningful lunar mission," he says.

Source: Flight International