September 28, 2010

Three British Hi-Res Imaging Satellites Planned

A $158 million project to launch three new British spacecraft to take pictures of the surface of the Earth has been announced.

The satellites will be able to see details down to just a few feet at their best resolution.

The spacecraft manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology Limited has joined up with its data processing subsidiary, DMCii, to produce the venture.

Nations will be able to buy time on the spacecraft if they need to as well.

"This constellation of three satellites will be owned and operated from the UK but the capacity on the spacecraft will be leased to different international customers," Martin Sweeting, executive chairman of SSTL, told BBC News.

The Guildford-based entrepreneur made the announcement in the Czech capital, Prague.

SSTL and DMCii already operate a fleet of 220lb-class imaging satellites, but these are owned by different nations, like the U.K., China, Spain and Nigeria.

DMCii acts as the project's business manager, processing and distributing their data, and collecting any revenues earned from selling the satellites' pictures of third-party customers.

There is a burgeoning worldwide business in imaging the surface of the planet for different types of applications, like making street plans to policing deforestation.

Survey Satellite has become a world leader in manufacturing small spacecraft for this purpose, helping to lower the cost by making the most of off-the-shelf components developed for ordinary consumer electronics, like laptops.

SSTL says its profitable business owes a great deal to government seed-funding 10 years ago, which helped it test key technologies and market opportunities.

Martin told BBC that there had been a 20-to-one return on this investment.

"We're not asking government to fund grand space programs," he told BBC News. "But there are some technologies and some business cases that we need the help of government just to get us over the hump - to get the wheels turning."

The new spacecraft will be built to a tight timeline, with expectations of sending them into orbit by the end of 2013.

Each satellite will weigh over 600 pounds and will be considered a larger class than the current DMCii-managed fleet.

The satellites will accommodate imagers capable of mapping ultra-wide strips of the Earth's surface.

The satellites have been particularly active this year in monitoring the impacts of the BP oil spill that took place in the Gulf of Mexico.


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