Page last updated at 12:11 GMT, Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Astrium buys up Surrey Satellite

DMC satellite in testing (STFC)
SSTL will soon add further satellites to the DMC

The purchase of UK satellite maker SSTL by Europe's biggest space company, EADS Astrium, has gone through.

Surrey Satellite Technology Limited started out as a spin-out from the University of Surrey in 1985.

It has become the world's leading manufacturer of small satellites, producing low-cost platforms for Earth observation missions.

The deal, approved by the European Commission, will allow SSTL to maintain its own management and brand identity.

"SSTL reached the point when we realised that if the company was going to continue to grow and to realise its full potential then it needed to have, essentially, richer parents than the university," explained Professor Sir Martin Sweeting, the executive chairman of SSTL.

"The university's first obligation is to its students and not as a financier for industrial activities, for business. We realised we had to make the change. We invited offers and the best one we got was from EADS Astrium."

Complementary missions

The deal sees Astrium pick up the bulk of the University of Surrey's 85% stake in SSTL.

The EC was satisfied there would be no loss of competition in the market by allowing the tie up.

The Guildford company will be permitted - even encouraged - to compete for business against its new parent. This is already happening in the tender process for Europe's forthcoming satellite-navigation system, Galileo.

SSTL built the first test platform, Giove-A; and Astrium led the construction of the second demonstrator, Giove-B. Both have now bid to build the main constellation of spacecraft.

SSTL would do the work with OHB, based in Bremen, Germany.

But Sir Martin said that Astrium's and SSTL's core businesses were largely complementary.

"We have a little bit of overlap in the middle... but Astrium concentrates on big satellites - that's their speciality; we concentrate on small satellites. And it's now actually having the ability to cover the whole spectrum from large down to the smaller satellites which is attractive to both Astrium and to SSTL."

Moon effort

SSTL built its reputation on being able to provide small satellites at extremely competitive prices; and it has worked closely with developing nations to give them access to space.

Its Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC), a network of five satellites operated for the Chinese, Algerian, Turkish, Nigerian and British governments, provides rapid remote-sensing data.

It is also heavily involved in a project to send a British orbiter to the Moon. The Moonlite mission would fire projectiles into the lunar surface to learn more about the Moon's interior.

EADS Astrium employs some 12,000 staff across Europe, with substantial British centres in Stevenage and Portsmouth.

The space division of EADS leads the production of Europe's Ariane rocket and is a dominant force in spacecraft manufacturing, producing many of the large geostationary platforms that relay today's commercial TV, telephone and internet services.

The company was also prime contractor on Columbus, the European science lab attached last year to the International Space Station (ISS), and the "Jules Verne" space freighter that re-supplies the ISS.

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