New market opens up for cheap spy satellites

Spy satellite technology is now cheap enough for private corporations and developing countries to afford, and one UK firm is at the vanguard of this new market sector.

Speaking to the Royal Academy of Engineering at its Royal Society Lecture this week Professor Martin Sweeting, chief executive of Surrey Satellite Technology explained how the equipment being used to find Osama bin Laden will soon be available to all.’The low unit cost of the small satellite finally brings it within the scope of every nation to possess its own, independent ‘eye-in-the-sky’ to observe the economic, environmental and military activities of its neighbours – or indeed double-check on its ‘friends’,’ said Sweeting.

Surrey Satellite Technology, set up by the University of Surrey in 1985, produces a wide range of satellites, some of which could be used for espionage purposes. But they are not like the 1000kg heavy ‘cold war’ satellites that aided the super powers.Surrey’s satellites are classified as mini, micro and nano. Mini satellites weigh 200kg to 1000kg, micro craft weigh 50 to 70kg and nano products are one to 10kg in weight. A mini satellite costs from £2m to buy and Surrey’s model can see ground objects larger than 10m.

The university has one such satellite for its own research purposes, known as UOSAT-12. It takes photos in black and white, and can spot ships at sea and planes on the ground. During the Kosovo war the company used it to watch the conflict unfold.

However, this level of ‘spy’ satellite technology pales in comparison with the US’s orbiting hardware. They, according to defence specialists, also photograph in black and white – but at a resolution of just 10cm; good enough to spot a person but not to recognise a face.

For most of Surrey’s customers, spotting faces from geo-synchronous orbit is not in the product specification. Environmental monitoring makes up a large proportion of the demand. To satisfy this the company has developed a 100kg satellite for high-resolution Earth observation missions.


Algeria, China, Nigeria, Thailand and the UK have all ordered one each and have also agreed to co-operate, for example at the time of a natural disaster. The five satellites would be operated in formation to ensure the stricken area could be seen once every 24 hours. Otherwise, due to the nature of satellites’ orbits and the Earth’s spin, it would be days between each satellite ‘pass’.

Those satellites will be managed by the company’s own control centre based on the university campus.

Surrey’s satellites do not just look down on Earth. They can also be used to monitor other spacecraft. A 6.5kg ‘nano-satellite’ called Snap One was launched in June 2000 to ‘image’ a Russian military satellite in orbit.

For navigation, Snap One uses a micro-miniature Global Positioning System and carries three ultra-miniature wide-angle video cameras and one narrow-angle camera, together with image-processing electronics.

Future applications for the nano-satellite type include remote inspection of satellites, monitoring of deployment mechanisms in orbit and the carrying of small scientific instruments.

Ironically all these types of satellites find themselves increasingly launched on rockets that were previously intercontinental ballistic missiles – the verytargets that the satellites’ predecessors would have been tasked to find.

The stockpiles of ICBMs in the former Soviet Union have become available for use as small launchers through the demilitarisation programme. The missiles available include the SS-18 and the SS-25, both of which types would have been targeted at major US and European cities just 10 years ago.