Home >> March 2008 Edition >> IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT MATTER
by David Mulholland, European Correspondent

Europe’s small satellite makers are preparing to cash in on strong demand for their diminutive birds, both from traditional space-faring countries such as Franceand from smaller countries that are interested in owning space assets. The drivers for the expected growth are threefold: changing requirements, lower costs and shrinking electronics.

Dr. Stuart Eves, the head of military programs at Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL), arguably the world’s leader in small satellites, likens traditional satellite makers to mainframe computer manufacturers, and SSTL to a PC maker. Moreover, just as most mainframes were replaced by PCs as their size shrank and their power grew, he expects small satellites to replace many larger ones in the years to come. He is not alone in that conviction, which is shared by SSTL’s major competitors.

Small satellites also enable countries to loft constellations of satellites at a cost that isn’t ruinous to their nation’s budget. Additionally, a constellation of small satellites can do things that single satellites are unable to accomplish such as; interferometric synthetic aperture radar (SAR); gather better information from a radio signal by timing the difference in signal arrival; and provide fast tactical imagery.

“A lot of people are becoming aware of the merit of small satellites,” Eves said.

The United Kingdom, France, Germany, and to a lesser extent, Italy, are heading the European charge into small satellites.

Attack of the Stereotypes

The efforts to change are painfully typical of European technology programs. The British drive is headed by SSTL, a small, innovative, and successful company that pioneered small satellites, largely working with American agencies. Despite their technical achievements, they have received almost no backing from the U.K. government. The Germans, with a smallish company, OHB, are quietly doing some good work with frugal support from the German government. The French government quickly realized the value of small satellites and has pushed its largest space company, the French subsidiary of EADS Astrium, to pursue the area with backing from the French space agency on technology and the French government on foreign sales. In summation, Italy is basically France — without the commitment.

The French Ministry of Defense was the first to acknowledge the promise of small satellites, leading the country to commission SSTL to build their first two small satellites, the CERISE and Clementine. Their missions occurred in 1995 and 1999, respectively. The French provide the SIGINT payloads, which could detect signals from 100MHz to around 17GHz.

In the classic pattern of British military acquisition, following the successful French missions, officials from the British Ministry of Defence stated that SSTL’s actions were militarily relevant—therefore, they wanted to do business. A decade passed before a demonstration satellite, TopSat, was actually launched, although there was some work prior to that mission.

In addition, in the classic pattern of French military acquisition, the French started talking with their large satellite companies about making small satellites, which initially proved quite expensive by comparison. For example, the Galileo program purchased two satellites. They are GIOVE-A and B and are part of the future navigation constellation, which will conduct demonstration missions, and be placeholders for the frequency band.
Alenia, Alcatel, and Astrium formed a consortium and bid 100 million euros. SSTL bid $28 million. The consortium revised their bid to 78 million euros. Both were awarded contracts. SSTL came in at their targeted bid price and on budget. That satellite is now nearing the end of its 27-month design life. The consortium’s satellite is now two-and-a-half years late and has grown in cost by two-thirds.

Other “small” satellites are large and expensive by comparison. France’s Pleiades satellites weigh about 1000 kg and costs 314 million euros for two. Italy’s four COSMO-SkyMed satellites weigh about 1,700 kg and a total program cost about 1 billion euros. That compares to about 350 million euros for Germany’s SAR-Lupe constellation of five satellites weighing in at about 750 kg.


SSTL started life as an element of the University of Surrey in the mid 1970s. The Department of Electrical Engineering built their first satellite tracking station for the OSCAR-7 and OSCAR-8 research satellites. In 1978, NASA offered Surrey’s researchers a piggyback launch and the University kicked-off the UoSAT-1 small satellite research mission. UoSAT-1 was launched in 1981. Four years later, the university spun off SSTL as an independent company.

SSTL has a different satellite strategy. Traditionally, access to space is quite expensive, said Eves. This has led satellite makers to mitigate risk through exhaustive testing which has raised the cost of satellites. SSTL is trying to create a virtuous cycle. Instead of having a few extremely expensive satellites with endless testing to bring down risk, SSTL wants to decrease the risk by lowering the cost of satellites and raising the volume. Essentially, the company is lowering risk by not having all the eggs in one basket.

As part of the strategy of lowering cost, SSTL does most of its testing on a system level, rather than a component, then subsystem, then system level.

“SSTL is taking a lot of what is going in terrestrial technology for things like mobile telephones and putting it into satellites,” Eves said. “Our competitors aren’t doing that, which is fortunate for us. We’re riding the terrestrial technology wave. They are custom designing every component.”

Another reason SSTL is able to come in on budget and cost is that the company has accepted many functions as in-house development tasks. Eves said, “This means if there is a problem, the fellow who can fix it is down the hall.”

Due to the lower cost of small satellites, new countries are becoming customers, such as Turkey and Canada. Even the U.K. is interested in small satellites. Eves said, “We feel we’re open for business. We’ve won the intellectual battle, now we have to get over the payment hurdle. When I talk to them they say, “That’s all very good, Stuart, but we don’t have any money.”

To overcome this obstacle, SSTL is looking at a service provision contract similar to SkyNet5, where the U.K. MoD would pay per image with a guaranteed buy. The U.S. has been a major customer for SSTL. This may change, Eves said. The U.S. is looking to standardize satellites. If the interfaces are standardized, there will no problems. However, if what is behind the interface is standardized then SSTL will not be able to comply as everything would have to be redesigned.


SSTL’s first U.K. military satellite, TopSat, weighs about 120 kg and is about the size of a washing machine, costing less than £14 million ($28 million). Despite its small size, the satellite has a resolution of about 2.8-m and has outperformed expectations in reliability and performance. Further work is being completed on resolution for future satellites. Eves said 1m resolution is possible. With such low costs, small satellites can start competing with top-end, high-altitude, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as the Global Hawk and EuroHawk.

One of the advantages of small electro-optical satellites, such as TopSat, is that they can keep the sensor pointed at the target as they pass overhead, allowing them to look at a target for a longer period of time, according to Eves. Larger satellites cannot do this because swiveling the sensor creates a wobble in the solar panels—that ruins the image. The small satellite is able to manage this maneuver because the solar panels are fixed to the body and do not vibrate. Improvements in solar panel technology, such as triple junction gallium arsenide that have 25-26 percent efficiency, about double the old silicon panels, help ensure the panels are small enough to remain attached to the satellite body.

The U.S. declined to participate in TopSat because the satellite was too small. However, the low cost and better-than-expected performance has reignited U.S. interest for small satellites that are able to provide timely tactical information.

Look Fast

During the Cold War, one of the primary uses of imagery satellites was to check up on other’s nuclear weapon’s sites. Having a satellite pass every several days met strategic needs. Today there is an emerging requirement for fast tactical imagery. SSTL has already demonstrated extremely short cueing times with TopSat. In one experiment, the time between sending the cueing order and receiving the image was 14 minutes. Another 15 minutes was required to process the image with an old computer, however that time requirement can be cut significantly with a newer computer in the ground station that consists of nothing more that an antenna and a computer. This compares quite favorably with the three or four days now required to cue a satellite to capture an image.

Eves stated the best solution for this type of need is to have a constellation of small satellites providing multiple passes each day to shorten the time required to cue a satellite and receive the image.

In addition to the company’s expertise on observation satellites, SSTL sees opportunities for military communications. Right now, 75-80 percent of the U.K.’s military communications is moving through commercial satellites. A constellation of small satellites could ratchet up the dedicated military communications capacity quickly.


France has a growing small satellite capability, primarily in the French part of EADS-Astrium. Although CNES, the French space agency, designed the 135 kg Myriade satellite that is the basis of Astrium’s small satellite ventures. Thales Space also contributes to this venture.

The state backing helped EADS Astrium beat SSTL in a bid for two reconnaissance satellites for Algeria weighing about 135 kg, a size class that SSTL dominated until the Myriade. This win sparked suspicions at SSTL that EADS Astrium was selling below cost to enter the market.

The satellites for Algeria are part of the Algerian National Space Technology Center’s Alsat-2 program. The Alsat-2 satellites will each possess a resolution of about 2.5-m in monochrome and 10-m in four-band, multispectral mode. SSTL built the Alsat-1, which launched in 2002.

The French military procurement agency DGA has ordered 10 Myriade-based satellites from EADS Astrium: four Essaim electronic eavesdropping satellites that fly in formation; two Spirale infrared missile warning satellites; and four as part of their Elint radar-detection demonstrator program. These satellites are priced approximately in the same range as SSTL satellites.


Germany’s OHB is building the SAR-Lupe five satellite constellation of small radar satellites. Those satellites are somewhat larger than SSTL’s satellites, but still small at 750 kg and about the size of an upright piano with a large antenna and solar panels. The SAR-Lupe program came in on time and budget at about 315 million euros, including launch and ground segments. The size of the satellites are partly due to them having fully redundant systems, unlike TopSat.

SSTL and OHB have signed an agreement to cooperate on the Galileo program. The company has specialized in radar satellites but is branching out with a 200-band hyperspectral satellite for the German Space Agency, DLR. The company is intending to offer such satellites to the military to provide full capability, said Fritz Meikle, OHB’s chief technical officer. In this vein, OHB is talking with the Turkish military about a multispectral satellite with 0.5-m resolution.

As is the case with SSTL, OHB is finding that small satellites are tempting new customers. Spain and Sweden have expressed interest in reconnaissance satellites.
“Our approach is to get ready for this market,” said Meikle.

The company is conducting several studies for future military satellites. One study funded by the German armed forces is looking at a LEO missile-warning constellation optimized for Europe, with six to 10 satellites, an idea for which OHB is applying for a patent. OHB is also working on a European Space Agency program for two or more geosynchronous satellites for military communications. This is closely related to anther program looking to radio communications from the ground to high-altitude UAVs, or LEO satellites, and then laser links to GEO satellites.


Italy joined the small satellite parade with the COSMO-SkyMed constellation, built by Thales Alenia Space, a French-Italian company. The four small satellites have X-band radars. The program cost 1.05 billion euros and is being paid both by the Italian space agency and the military. These satellites have several modes of operation, with a spot mode resolution of 90-cm and swath as large as 200 km.

Author Biography

David Mulholland has covered military affairs for more than a decade, reporting on NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense for New Technology Week, the USAF for Defense News, aviation and business for Jane’s Defence Weekly, and logistics as co-founder and editor of Military Logistics International. He can be reached at: dmulholland100@hotmail.com