Page last updated at 18:09 GMT, Thursday, 22 January 2009

UK sat firm plans low cost mapper

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

SSTL ART satellite concept (SSTL)
The half-tonne satellite would cost about $70m to build and launch

A UK firm believes its latest satellite design can dramatically reduce the cost of high resolution space imagery.

SSTL says the spacecraft would map the Earth's surface at resolutions typically found in virtual globe programs, at 60cm/pixel.

The company claims the whole system could be built and launched for $70m rather than the roughly $500m it costs to put up more conventional spacecraft.

SSTL has just been bought up by EADS Astrium, Europe's biggest space firm.

The ultra hi-res optical system is the first new product to be detailed by Surrey Satellite Technology Limited since the acquisition.

The Guildford-based outfit has made its name for itself by producing very low-cost space systems. Its small satellites incorporate many off-the-shelf components normally found in the computer and automobile industries.

"This is an exciting development for us; we've been studying the idea for over a year now," said Philip Davies, business development manager with SSTL.

"You could produce extremely good maps with the data from this spacecraft. In terms of the satellite, we are looking at about one-tenth of the cost of a normal satellite."

 RAPIDEYE AG Agricultural area near Sao Paulo - Acquired by RapidEye CHOROS on Nov 11 2008
SSTL spacecraft already produce a wealth of Earth imagery

SSTL hopes to exploit the rapidly growing market for commercial mapping and location-based services seen in the emergence of the likes of Google Earth, Microsoft Virtual Earth, Nokia Maps, TomTom sat-nav systems, and others.

Currently, the image data which feeds such systems comes from large spacecraft partly funded by the US government.

SSTL says that although the quality of the pictures is excellent, commercial customers are constantly looking for lower costs and more up-to-date coverage to keep their mapping services accurate.

The company believes its new ART (Accuracy, Reach, Timeless) satellite system can deliver sub-one-metre resolution, covering 95% of the Earth's surface every 30 months.

Raw imagery costs would come out at $0.15 per sq km. This compares with the $20 per sq km being charged for some pictures currently.

There have been some major buy-outs in the mapping sector which underline its potential future growth. Nokia, for instance, bought NavTeq, the company which produces the maps for Nokia's mobile services, for $8.1bn.

"Our view is that people are now very used to using high-quality imagery in tools such as GoogleEarth and NokiaMaps and what is needed is consistent quality across the world, and that the imagery is fresh - not many years out of date," said Paul Brooks, director for business development and sales at SSTL.

"Our system allows this at a price that allows a good return on investment."

SSTL is perhaps best known for its Disaster Monitoring Constellation satellites which map the Earth at times of emergency at resolutions between 4m and 32m. It also produced Giove-A, the first demonstration spacecraft for Europe's forthcoming sat-nav system, Galileo.

It is also working on a British Moon mission concept.

The purchase of SSTL by EADS Astrium was approved by the European Commission after it was satisfied there would not be a loss of competition in the market place. SSTL is allowed to bid directly against its parent for new business.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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