Summer  >>  2005

Smallsat Remote

A New Driver in Space Development

After several years of unrealizedpromise, false starts and uncertainties, microsats and smallsats centered on remote sensing applications have become the focus of developing countries’ aspirations to enter the league of space-capable countries.

While the large space companies in the United States and Europe seem able to offer only large, expensive, though highly sophisticated remote sensing satellites, much smaller startups in the United Kingdom and now South Africa have taken the lead in providing end-to-end, innovative solutions for countries with limited economies.

Surrey Space Technologies, Limited (SSTL) in the United Kingdom was the first to provide satellites for this growing market. Developing from a university program at University of Surrey in Guildford, England in the 1980s, SSTL has now provided small satellites to several countries at a fraction of the cost of those provided by the world’s large companies.

From the beginning, SSTL has struck out on a very different course from those companies, successfully marketing its concept of an inexpensive Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC) to Algeria, Nigeria, and Turkey. Together with the U.K.-owned Topsat smallsat, these four satellites can image the entire world every day in three spectral bands at 32-m resolution. China will join the DMC later this year, with a smallsat that includes a 4-m panchromatic camera as well as the moderate-resolution multispectral camera used by the other satellites.

Part of SSTL’s success is its provision of considerable technological know-how to these countries. Technicians from the customer countries work alongside SSTL engineers, learning how to build and operate smallsats, to operate the control software and systems and to use the data for applications in their countries.

Although these satellites currently offer lower resolution and fewer multispectral channels than the more familiar government or commercial ones, these smallsats have the marked advantage of bringing to these countries capabilities they could not have dreamed of obtaining elsewhere in the marketplace. At the same time these countries are developing the capacity to put such imagery to use for a variety of purposes other than monitoring natural disasters, such as agriculture, water resources management, and resource conservation. Interestingly, improved in-country capacity to apply the data to their needs will also help create a wider market for higher-resolution data from the commercial satellites as these countries improve their technical capacities.

Recently the South African company SunSpace has emerged to provide a bit of competition with SSTL. I visited SunSpace at their headquarters in Stellenbosch, near Cape Town, and was impressed with their capabilities and their resolve to become a world-class competitor to SSTL and other firms.

>> Valley glaciers appear as fingers of blue ice reaching out from the Vatnajökull Glacier in Iceland’s Skaftafell National Park. The park lies on the southern edge of Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest ice cap. Landsat 7 image captured August 4, 1999, courtesy of USGS and NASA.

Like SSTL, SunSpace evolved in part from a university program, this one centered in Stellenbosch University. The success of that program in building and operating the Sunsat moderate resolution satellite led directly to SunSpace. With Sunsat and subsequent subsystems that SunSpace has built for external customers, the firm has demonstrated its technical and managerial capabilities. The company now offers satellites, subsystems and services for sale. It also offers the chance for countries to advance their expertise in satellite construction by working with Sunspace to create their own microsats.

In the future, Sunspace also plans to offer small communications satellites operating in geostationary orbit. Although the capacity of such systems would be necessarily smaller than the larger ones now in commercial use, they are likely to be entirely sufficient for smaller countries’ needs.

South Africa has recently been struggling with defining its approach to space technology. Though the country has several small high-technology companies like SunSpace that are highly capable, and though it makes extensive use of remotely sensed data from the world’s major systems for government and private applications, it has not encouraged development of its fledgling space sector.

In 1993, South Africa was even one of the first countries outside of the United States to create its own space law. However, after the old Apartheid regime came to an end in the early 1990s and the new democracy took hold, the old space program, previously organized and run by the military, was shut down. There were, after all, many other economic and social needs to address after years of divisive and oppressive Apartheid policies.

South Africa has solid intellectual capital and a cadre of well-qualified scientists and engineers. It also has a well-trained workforce and a government focused on improving the educational level of the entire future workforce. With all of these resources, the intellectual energies of the entire population can be tapped to foster a truly dynamic space program.

To ensure that it grows and contributes broadly to South Africa’s technological development, proponents of developing a focused policy approach to South African space projects will need the firm support of government officials. A well-constructed policy that recognizes the promise that space technology can hold for the future of South Africa can provide the necessary foundation for the success of SunSpace and other South African space ventures.

Several government departments are well acquainted with the application of remote sensing and other technologies to Earth-bound needs. There is also a strong will among many mid-level career people in the government to construct a coherent space policy and perhaps even form a space office or agency to encourage South Africa’s space technology efforts. Yet, in part because of the connection of earlier space efforts with the previous government, the current government has been slow to grasp space technology’s promise and to lead development of South African high technology efforts.

These understandable sensitivities need to be overcome before the country will succeed in bringing its capabilities to bear on the development of South Africa’s space industry. If it does, South Africa could truly be the continent’s space technology leader, guiding other African countries in their efforts.

Ray A. Williamson is research professor of space policy and international affairs in the Space Policy Institute of The George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

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