Space for opportunity

Stuart Nathan

Features Editor

A plan announced by Surrey Satellites (SSTL) to launch three Earth-imaging spacecraft to be hired out to commercial customers demonstrates the UK’s leading position in the private sector space industry. It also adds ammunition for those who believe that public funding is essential for science and technology companies.

At this week’s International Aeronautics Congress in Prague, SSTL chairman Sir Martin Sweeting announced that the company is to launch a constellation of three 300kg-class satellites in 2013, each equipped with cameras capable of imaging the surface of the planet to a resolution of one metre. Working with its data processing subsidiary, DMCii, the company will sell time on the satellites to countries which do not have their own Earth-imaging capabilities.

It’s an ambitious plan, which will cost the company £100m, but it clearly has high hopes for a good profit margin. Indeed, its commercial activities, which have included making satellites for observation and communication applications, have put it at the forefront of the UK’s space industry. This has been pinpointed as a success story and a potential for growth by successive government science ministers.

However, as Sweeting pointed out, SSTL wouldn’t have got off the ground without public funding. It was seed funding which, ten years ago, that allowed the company to test vital technologies and investigate market opportunities. Sweeting believes it has returned that investment 20 times over.

SSTL is quite definitely a success story today, but its potential probably couldn’t have been foreseen ten years ago. Certainly, it’s easy to imagine a conservative-minded bank getting cold feet over the risk of investing in so much unproven technology and a novel business plan. Sweeting argues that the funding he received got the company ‘over the hump’ and into a state where it could exploit a growing market. Companies in a similar position today — looking to test and develop untried technology for a market which isn’t developed — would certainly agree with him; the UK’s large marine energy sector, developing a wide variety of wave energy converters and tidal turbines — is arguably comparable to the private space sector back in the late 1990s.

The current round of political conferences is demonstrating that austerity rules; where to cut, rather than where to spend, dominates the financial debate. But companies like SSTL show us that there is a place for judicious investment even for industrially-focused R&D. Politicians and civil servants should take note.