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Friday, 15 November, 2002, 10:10 GMT
The UK's mini-satellite revolution
The Nasa satellite (Artists impression) Compton Gamma Ray Observatory
Could smaller satellites be more effective?

Pioneering work has been carried out in Britain on developing small satellites that can do the same job as much larger satellites but more cheaply.


Things have developed from lunacy through to irritation and now to being flavour of the month

Prof Martin Sweeting
Credit card-sized satellites are even under consideration but generally, in the satellite business, craft have been getting bigger and bigger over the years.

When the world's first satellite, Sputnik, was launched in 1957, it weighed just 84kg and sent out a simple beeb-beep signal, that told everybody the Space Age had dawned.

Nowadays satellites are often as big as buses and can weigh up to eight tonnes.

Revolutionised

When it comes to the world's great space centres you might think of Cape Canaveral in Florida or the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazahkstan, but you probably wouldn't think of Guildford, a town in the southeast of Britain.

Yet it's here that scientists have revolutionised the space business, in developing small and micro satellites.

An image of a mini-satellite
Mini-satellites weigh about 400kg
The man responsible for all this is Professor Sir Martin Sweeting, head of Surrey Satellite Technology, a commercial company based in a modest redbrick building on the university campus.

While his work is now recognized he said it wasn't always so.

"Certainly if you go back to the early 90s, banging on about microsatellites or small satellites really was considered pretty irritating by most people," he said.

"Prior to that it was considered a mild form of lunacy, and things have developed from lunacy through to irritation and now to being flavour of the month, which is very gratifying."

Low-cost

Besides designing and building satellites, the team at Surrey also control them once they're launched.

An image of a nano-satellite
Nano-satellites weigh less than 10kg

And later this year Surrey will launch the first of a constellation of seven low-cost earth observation satellites - to look at natural and man-made disasters.

It's a joint project between the university, Algeria, China, Nigeria, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam - and each country gets its own satellite.

However Surrey's commercial success depends on making its small satellites cheap to run.

Frank Morring of Aviation Week and Space Technology said it is important that the small satellites can compete with the services already available on larger satellites, for example remote sensing.

"Is it cheaper for a developing nation, which is one of their big market bases, to buy into a Surrey satellite to do land use planning, or simply go to one of the other commercial space remote sensing companies," he said.

Fridge-size

But Prof Sweeting says his satellites do make commercial sense, and insists they are making space cheaper and more accessible than ever before.

Prof Sweeting said small satellites now can achieve probably 80% of what bigger satellites can do but at about 10% of the cost.

An image of a micro-satellite
Micro-satellites weigh between 35kg and 70kg
His latest microsatellite is only about the size of a domestic fridge and costs about $15m.

"It's not every home can have one, but certainly every government can have one, and even individual government departments can have one, and in some cases even individual universities and institutes," he said.

Credit-card size

While governments may be the main customers today of such satellites, Colin Hicks of the British National Space Centre, said this is going to change.

"It's going to be a pull from commercial application that will result in new satellites being built, both for navigation and for earth observation," he said.

In Surrey, Martin Sweeting is working on his most radical proposal yet - credit card-sized satellites.

"The intent is to be able to manufacture these at very low cost, to launch them at relatively low cost and then operate them, more of an organic cloud in orbit which can be very rapidly reconfigured," he said.

He's sure that once the design challenges of such tiny satellites are overcome, there will be a commercial market for them.

And that should make the cost of getting information from space even cheaper still.


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