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2004 World Technology Awards Winners & Finalists

Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd

Please describe the work that you are doing that you consider to be the most innovative and of the greatest likely long-term significance.

SSTL has been responsible for creating a worldwide transformation in access to space through a revolutionary and highly innovative approach to the design of small, low-cost, yet highly capable microsatellites. In a similar manner to which the miniaturisation of computers has enabled the power of computing to be brought within the reach of millions through the personal computer (PC), microsatellites have enabled developing countries, research institutes and universities to participate first-hand in space exploration in an affordable manner that was, until now, unimaginable. It is no exaggeration to state the SSTL has revolutionised the design approach to unmanned space missions and opened practical and affordable access to space to all nations and to wider commercial applications.

By reducing the cost of building, launching and operating satellites by typically two orders of magnitude through innovative designs utilising commercially available microelectronics components rather than formally space qualified parts, the benefits of direct access to space are now affordable by every country on Earth. Low cost microsatellites enable developing countries, for the first time, to independently monitor their regional environment; mitigate the effects of natural and man-made disasters; provide modern communications services; stimulate educational activities in science and technology and catalyse local space-related supply chain and value-added industries.

Incorporated in 1985 as a University of Surrey spin-off company, SSTL today employs more than 180 professional staff, with a turnover of almost $20 million predicted for the current financial year. SSTL is listed in the 2003 Financial Times Top 100 fastest growing technology companies, and is rated 16th in the world’s satellite manufacturing companies by turnover by international publisher, Space News.

In 1995, SSTL proposed that a number of low cost, yet highly capable, microsatellites operating in a constellation could provide, for the first time, a practical, affordable means of monitoring natural and man-made disasters – where the ability of rapid imaging within 24 hours anywhere on the Earth’s surface was key to providing information to disaster relief co-ordination agencies. Conventional single large satellite systems could only provide infrequent imaging opportunities and a constellation of such satellites, costing over $200 million, was simply too costly. In order to fund the constellation, SSTL created a novel mechanism of international collaboration involving Algeria, China, Nigeria, Turkey and the UK to achieve the project. Each country contributed a microsatellite, built at Surrey, into the constellation. The individual satellites are owned and operated by the funding country but launched into same orbit plane and operated co-operatively to provide temporal as well as spatial and spectral imaging performance. By building and launching four microsatellites, each weighing around 90kg, and costing less then $10 million each, SSTL led this remarkable international collaboration to result in the world’s first satellite constellation dedicated to disaster monitoring. Known as the Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC), its satellites have already been used by Algeria in earthquake damage assessment; flood extent measurement in Vietnam; forest fire damage measurement in Corsica, France and Los Angeles. The DMC has now been invited to join the International Charter on disaster monitoring.

The potential of SSTL’s microsatellites has also been recognised by the long-established space nations and agencies. As SSTL satellites have grown in capability and professionalism, they have attracted attention from the French MoD, NASA and the US DoD, all customers of SSTL, who recognise microsatellites as having a profound impact on their long assumed overwhelming space superiority over the majority of nations, and as a highly flexible and affordable asset in a world where military threats have fundamentally changed since the end of the Cold War.

The latest SSTL satellites provide fully operational capabilities at a fraction of the conventional cost – as evidenced by the DMC and the award in 2003 by ESA of a contract to build the first satellite in Europe’s Galileo navigation system.