Monday, October 10, 2011

SAR Satellite Designers Living in Interesting Times

Representatives at BC based MacDonald Dettwiler (MDA), presently under contract with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to construct the next generation RADARSAT Constellation series of three synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites (with an estimated total cost of $600M CDN), have so far turned down a request to comment on the October 3rd, 2011 BBC News article "Surrey to start making radar satellites."

The article focuses on UK based Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) and it's intent to "build, insure and launch" the next generation of SAR satellites for less than 50M euros each.

C-Band RADARSAT 2 image.
The SSTL proposal is 1/3 of the estimated cost of the Canadian designed and build RADARSAT's.

However, the article provided few details of the new SSTL design or capabilities and included no listing of potential clients or information on how the project would be funded.

The announcement was made by Luis Gomes, the head of Earth observation at SSTL, during an SSTL presentation at the recently concluded 62nd International Astronautical Congress. According to the BBC article:
SSTL's decision is fascinating because radar satellites have traditionally been big, power-hungry beasts. It takes a lot of energy to generate the pulses and then to process the echo returns. The problem for SSTL has been in devising a package that is relatively small and inexpensive - the company's trademarks.
According to Gnomes, "we've addressed this by using new technology - new types of amplifier from commercial terrestrial applications in telecommunications."

SSTL , a spin-off company of the University of Surrey, rose to prominence by building and operating small, inexpensive micro-satellites utilizing  low cost manufacturing methodologies. These methodologies are today the basis for ongoing satellite design and development activities at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) Space Flight Laboratory (SFL) and other organizations around the world. SSTL is presently a subsidiary of the global pan-European aerospace and defense corporation European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS).

It will be interesting to see if this is simply another power-point pitch by a company interested in outside funding or if maybe, just maybe, SSTL is using the lessons learned from two decades of low cost microsat manufacturing to begin lowering the cost of building useful, commercial satellites.

Stay tuned.

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