One giant leap for Surrey

One giant leap for Surrey

Mike Hughes looks at one of the most remarkable success stories in the Enterprise M3 region – satellite technology.

The Surrey space race really began in 1985, when Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd was formed as a spinout company from University of Surrey. The date is important because it means SSTL has been delivering small satellite missions for 30 years - longer than anyone else in the world and making it our planet’s leading provider of operational and commercial satellite programmes.

It was the giant leap after many years of space being considered such a different environment to Earth that anything sent into the atmosphere needed to be specially designed and tested for the harsh conditions of space. Naturally, this made building satellites expensive and time-intensive.    

In the late 1970s, a group of highly-skilled aerospace researchers working at the University of Surrey started to experiment by creating a satellite using COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) components and the results were surprising.

That first satellite, UoSat-1, was launched in 1981 with the help of NASA and the mission went on to outlive its planned three year life by more than five years. Most importantly, the team showed that relatively small and inexpensive satellites could be built rapidly to perform successful and sophisticated missions.    

Satellite Sstl Novasar S In ManufactureIn 1985 the University of Surrey formed Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd as a spin-out company to transfer the results of its research into a commercial enterprise. The company, based at the Surrey Research Park in Guildford, provides complete in-house design, manufacture, launch and operation of small satellites. It also delivers complete mission solutions for earth observation, remote sensing, science, navigation and telecommunications as well as space training and development programmes.

The experts here can also design and build remote sensing, navigation and communications payloads, build and install ground infrastructure  and act as consultants on a huge variety of projects.

It basically develops satellites throughout their life cycle – from design and build through to launch and in-orbit monitoring and maintenance – or any stage of that cycle, designing, building, assembling and testing satellites and almost all their components in-house for tailor-made satellites.

Today SSTL employs 500 staff across two sites and has launched 48 satellites. In 2008 the company set up a US subsidiary, Surrey Satellite Technology LLC with offices in Denver, Colorado, and in 2009 the EADS (European Aeronautic Defence and Space) company Astrium BV bought a 99% shareholding in SSTL from the University of Surrey, allowing the company to fulfil its growth potential. Two years ago the EADS restructured and SSTL is now an independent company within the Airbus Defence and Space Group.

Another key player in the sector is Deimos, whose MD Philip Davies was responsible for all SSTL’s business development activities in Europe until he left to run Deimos, which has extensive experience and knowledge in launch trajectory analysis, safety and termination systems, architectures and approaches.

Philip told our BQ Live Debate in Guildford that the UK was aiming for a £40bn slice of the global sector and that the focus was on the South East “because Deimos saw it as a massive growth area, partly because of the Innovation and Growth Strategy, supported by industry and Government.”

Satellite Deimos Control Centre

One of the most eye-catching projects both companies are working on is a UK-based launch operation for their satellite technology. Deimos Space UK, together with SSTL, Firefly Space Systems and Scotland’s Highlands and Islands Enterprise, have been awarded a grant by the UK Space Agency to carry out an industrial research project to investigate the challenges associated with the introduction and operation of commercially viable small-satellite launch services from the UK.

Philip said: “Deimos Space is excited to lead this project to build the case for a UK vertical launch site in a way which will stand up to a detailed and thorough examination. We look forward to working with key industry partners, using our expertise in Space mission analysis to take forward the case for launch from the UK.

“Deimos Space UK and its project partners are analysing and quantifying the value of using an imported launch vehicle for a UK-based launch operation. We are identifying cost drivers and key launch site infrastructure, logistics and operational factors that could be used to shape a commercially optimised UK launch service.

“The project is establishing which orbits can be accessed, considering all performance and safety aspects, and is analysing and quantifying the costs of all launch-related activities, including those associated with infrastructure and support, transportation, export and customs.

“Another valuable output will be a set of recommendations, underpinned by robust analysis, for how a UK launch offering should be shaped in order to make it the most competitive and commercially viable offering possible. This should enable the UK to establish Europe’s first, and possibly only, orbital launch site.”

Katherine Courtney, interim chief executive of the UK Space Agency added: “Low cost access to space is key to unlocking growth. We look forward to the technology and market insights these projects will deliver later this year - helping us get the policy right in this area. The government’s aim is to support industry to open new markets by establishing a spaceport in the UK and to enable the UK space sector, valued at £11.8b in 2014, to grow to £40b by 2030.“

Satellite Sstl Assembly Hall

The support for Deimos and SST has been high-profile, with the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy (IGS) setting out ambitious targets for the growth of the UK space sector, with ‘Access to Space’ being a key IGS theme.

The UK has already said it wants to become a launching site with the long-term goal of being able to support suborbital operations and orbital delivery of small satellites with the IGS goals and objectives being mainly commercial and economic.

The stellar growth of the sector is expected to come from commercial launches rather than institutional or military contracts, so any resulting work from Deimos, SSTL and their partners must be commercially viable, offering a clear commercial advantage to customers who currently have to launch their payloads from overseas.

This part of the UK has always had sky-high ambitions. Now it seems not even that is high enough for the home of one of the UK’s fastest-growing sectors.