SSTL chief maintains his vision to keep Britain at the forefront of satellite communication
The incredible Apollo 11 lunar landing of 1969 inspired a whole generation of space engineers. Driven by the excitement surrounding Neil Armstrong’s momentous steps, young people throughout the world began to look to the night sky with dreams of one day setting foot on the Moon.
But that was more than 40 years ago and those lofty ambitions of the 1970s have yet to be realised. The Obama administration has since scrapped NASA’s Constellation programme to build the Orion spacecraft for manned missions to the Moon and the European Space Agency (ESA) has shifted its focus to robotic space exploration.
Meanwhile, the UK’s interest drifted from human space travel to satellites, more particularly to what satellites could mean for life on Earth. For the past two decades, the UK has punched above its weight in this area, winning major contracts over countries such as the US. Much of this success has been the direct result of the revolutionary vision of one man, Sir Martin Sweeting, chairman of Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL).
’I was inspired by the Moon landings and at around the same time I saw the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which really captured my imagination,’ Sweeting said. While studying for a PhD in electrical engineering at Surrey University, Sweeting got a group of fellow radio-hams together to build a satellite. ’That was considered a pretty hairbrained project,’ he said. ’We knew nothing about satellites or how to build them, but, to everyone’s amazement, it worked.’ The resulting satellite weighed 72kg (160lb), an astonishing achievement at a time when most satellites were the size of a double-decker bus.
Nations will shift their priorities back to human travel, which could mean big business for the UK
With a persuasive charm, Sweeting convinced NASA to give a free ride to the tiny satellite on one of its rocket launchers. ’Our secret was that we exploited the rapid advance in electronics at the time. We used pre-existing technology out of consumer products. Because we were just starting out, we had no preconceived ideas and so our satellite was much cheaper, lighter and quicker to make. We learnt so much and it was so fascinating that we decided to build a second one. And I guess the rest is history.’
Today, Sweeting heads up SSTL, with an order book currently standing at around £400m. It has 33 satellites in orbit and has secured a number of major contracts, including delivery of 14 navigation satellites for the deployment phase of Europe’s Galileo navigation system.
SSTL’s approach of using cheap off-the-shelf equipment has won favour throughout the world, and now countries are attempting to launch their own ’small satellite’ programmes. ’They’ve finally cottoned on, which is nice of course, but it does generate competition for us,’ said Sweeting. ’On the other hand, competition keeps us sharp.’
As nations catch up with the UK in their satellite programmes, Sweeting plans to help Britain stay ahead of the game. He predicts the glamour of manned space exploration will return within the next 10 years after the discovery of significant amounts of water on the Moon. He believes nations will shift their priorities back to human travel, which, he claims, could mean big business for the UK.
’Only three years ago, if you said there was water on the Moon, people would have taken you off to the loony bin,’ said Sweeting. ’Now they’ve discovered large amounts of water there, we can take that water to generate fuel so that we can then start to travel further and have sustainable food resources. This could make those plans of returning to the Moon a possibility. But to do that and for the UK to be involved, we have to change the economic model.’
Sweeting’s vision is that the UK will ’own’ large areas of space as countries, including China and India, vie to establish colonies on the Moon over the coming decades. His plan is to surround the Moon with small satellites to give astronauts internet and communication capabilities.
’We could be the Vodafone around the Moon essentially,’ he said. ’The areas that we’ve focused on in the past few years, robotics and satellites, means we have the knowledge and expertise to do that.’
He likens the situation to the Gold Rush of 1848, when thousands of people rushed to California in search of their fortune. ’In reality, the people who made the money were the guys on the railways who set up the hotels, provided the shovels, the water they didn’t make money overnight, but they made very good business. That’s where the UK should be, providing the infrastructure.’
If Sweeting’s instincts on manned space travel are as accurate as his prediction on small satellites, Britain may be well positioned to benefit from the need to extend the communications infrastructure to other planets. It may not be as glamorous as sending someone to the Moon, but it will certainly earn the UK a seat at the table of future international human space activity.
Sir Martin Sweeting
Executive chairman – Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL)
1981 Launched the UK’s first research micro satellite at Surrey University while doing a PhD in Electronic Engineering and Communications
1985 Formed spin-off university company, Surrey Satellite Technology
1995 Awarded the OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours and the Royal Academy of Engineering Silver Medal — both in recognition of his pioneering work in small satellites
1996 Elected a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering
2000 Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and also awarded the Royal Society’s Mullard Prize
2002 Knighted in the New Year Honours for services to the small satellite industry
2006 Appointed a distinguished professor at Surrey University; invited to join the ESA Advisory Committee on Human Spaceflight
2009 Awarded the Faraday Medal by the Institution of Engineering and Technology
Q&A Scope for the future
What does SSTL have in the research pipeline?
One of the exciting things we’re looking at are robots that can construct big satellites in orbit from lots of little ones. They’ll act a bit like Lego, so we’ll be able to change their shape after a while if we then decide we want to address a certain problem differently. The replacement for the Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope, is a big monster, about the biggest you can launch. The new telescope is going to keep us quiet for about another 10-15 years, but eventually we’re going to say that we want a bigger one, so how are we going to get that? I think that the answer could be in building something like Lego blocks in space. That type of capability is 20 or more years away, but to get there we need to start now.
How about plans for the near future?
Well, there are probably two things that really stick out in the shorter term. One is building on a satellite that we launched five years ago for the European Space Agency to demonstrate the European GPS system. We won the contract to build the first half of the full constellation. So that will be 14 of the payloads for this system and our partners in Germany are building the platform. That will be one every six weeks or so, which will be quite tough. It’s the biggest project that we’ve done. The second that I think is going to be really interesting is that we’re planning to fund and launch a constellation of satellites. We have one grouping up there called ’Disaster Monitoring Constellation’ – essentially we brought together five or six countries to send up satellites that can image anywhere in the world within 24 hours. That’s been running very successfully for seven years, but our technology has now improved to 1m resolution. We want to launch a constellation with better technology and we’re working on that right now.
Do you think the lack of funding has helped with SSTL’s creativity?
Yes, I do and sometimes my colleagues get irritated when I say it. But actually, I do firmly believe that we’ve been able to be creative because we’re not in an environment where people are tipping large amounts of money in. Government money is very nice and helpful but it comes with strings. It does tend to make you follow what government thinks are the right solutions and government does not always get it right – mostly not to be honest, especially in the commercial aspect of it.
How would you like to see the government support the space industry?
I think what can have an impact is government giving a little bit of money at the right time. Not too much, but just to get the ball rolling and to get rid of a few of the risks that the company can’t take by itself. Of course in an environment when we’ve got dramatic cuts across departments, it’s going to be very interesting in the next few weeks what they do with space. What the government does understand is space is critically important. Now it has a spokesperson at Cabinet level, which it has never had for 30 years, so we hope that they will take the right view.