Some time this month an intercontinental ballistic missile will blast off from its silo from beneath the ground in deepest Kazakhstan. It will not, however, be carrying the nuclear warhead it was designed to deliver. Instead the payload will include five small satellites designed and built amid the neatly clipped lawns and ornamental lakes of the University of Surrey, almost within the shadow of Guildford cathedral.
The satellites are each the size of a normal fridge. Once they break away from the ex-Soviet rocket the five will form a constellation but their purpose is far from astrophysical. When they swing into action they will beam back pictures of the Earth – capable of collecting, among other things, evidence of agricultural fraud, illegal oil dumping, the impact of natural disasters and likely deposits of minerals.
They are the latest in a series of satellites of increasing sophistication which have been built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, until recently part of Surrey University and the brainchild of a team led by the company’s chief executive, Professor Sir Martin Sweeting…
Size, or rather the lack of it, was to become SSTL’s trade mark. Its satellites would be smaller, cheaper and quicker to build. According to SSTL, a large satellite might weigh more than 1,000kg, cost $500m and take years to develop. One of its micro-satellites, by comparison, would weigh 100kg, cost $10m and take 18 months to put together.
A thoroughly enjoyable article about technologists and scientists with the acumen to develop niche markets with suitable budgets – and successfully market their dreams.