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Space Blog

Sir Martin's Royal Aeronautical Society Annual Dinner speech

Read Sir Martin Sweeting's views on the first 4 decades of the space era and the role that it plays in our everyday lives.
The role that Space has in our lives is now taken for granted: we have become reliant on it every day – whether it be for weather forecasting, satellite TV, banking, communications or navigating in our cars. Indeed, it is now part of our national critical infrastructure underpinning our economy, security and well-being.

Space also provides unique opportunities for collaboration between nations – on climate, the environment, food & water security, science and exploration beyond our Earthly limits. Of course, space also can be ‘dual-use’, offering both security and military advantage – indeed it has become increasingly difficult to envisage military engagements without the use of space assets… this, by the way, generates both strength and potential vulnerability due to over-reliance.

The first 4 decades of the space era were dominated by a few super-powers who alone possessed the knowledge and budgets to undertake the enormous technical and programmatic challenges posed. This small club became used to having the advantages of space all to themselves, where access to and the exploitation of space was driven primarily by military and national priorities as well as prestige and scientific exploration – although these were often difficult to separate.
The commercial applications of space grew slowly because of the large investments needed and the relatively high risk associated with the technology.

The first commercial applications were in satellite communications services. Earth observation, on the other hand, remained almost entirely driven by military and government initiatives. Thus space was considered exotic, expensive and risky – and satellites were designed, procured and managed according to familiar government/military processes. A typical space project might take a decade (or two!) to go from concept to orbital operation and costs of £100M to £1Bn were not uncommon.

The UK is generally not given to revolutions, however in the early 1980’s the UK pioneered a radically new species of satellite. As in the Jurassic period, where agile and adaptable mammals challenged the powerful but ponderous dinosaurs, these small ‘micro’-satellites costing under £10M rather than £100Ms evolved steadily in their capabilities and most importantly their utility to challenge the behemoths.  The turning point occurred around the year 2000, when small satellites evolved from being an ‘interesting curiosity but of no practical value’ to being able to provide significant operational and commercial utility. They demonstrated both lower cost and more responsive solutions to meet existing applications, but also began to stimulate completely new business models – fundamentally changing the economics of space … and not just for commercial entrepreneurs but also the security/defence sector.

AlSat-1: a small earth observation satellite for Algeria, launched 2002.

Developing or emerging economy nations were the first to recognise that this new approach would enable them to get first-hand access to space and its benefits on a sensibly affordable budget. The trickle of a dozen or so developing countries that learned from the UK to build and launched their own satellites in the 1990’s has since become a flood and, to date, over 65 countries have taken their first steps into space via small satellite projects. Indeed, through even smaller ‘nano-satellites’, space is now within the reach of small companies, universities and even high-schools: a recent launch from India carried over 100 small satellites on a single rocket!  Interestingly, the civil institutional sector has been the slowest to take up small satellites – perhaps because the cost/benefit/urgency/risk equation does not well match such organisations.

The underlying technologies that have enabled this ‘peaceful revolution’ have come from the enormous investments made by the industrial and domestic consumer sectors in developments that have created mass markets for their products based upon microelectronics, such as laptops, mobile phones, digital cameras, satnavs and so on. These everyday products possess capabilities and performance at a price unimaginable two decades ago. The reduction in the unit production costs by orders of magnitude whilst at the same time achieving high yield and extreme reliability through a parallel revolution in manufacturing & production techniques, provided the platform for small satellites to take advantage ‘parasitically’ of ‘COTS’ microelectronics to create small, low-cost yet capable and reliable satellites – with a design innovation cycle typically of around a year from mission to mission.

But, whilst the low cost of a small satellite enabled new players to gain a foothold in space, the real impact came with their use in constellations of multiple small satellites in orbit.  In the same manner that individual PCs are networked locally and linked to the wwweb to provide something that is greater than the sum of the parts, so small satellite constellations have increased capability, coverage and responsiveness in an economically practical manner.  In Earth observation, for example, these constellations have already greatly reduced the time taken to image and revisit a ground target on a daily rather than weekly basis – and soon this will become hourly, stimulating completely new business models.

The RapidEye Constellation of 5 earth observation satellites, launched 2008.

The insatiable demand for communications, largely driven by the ubiquitous mobile/smart phone and tablet, has stimulated innovative commercial space system proposals – particularly serving those populations that are do not yet have adequate access communications hubs. Taking advantage of the design agility, low unit cost and rapid manufacturing,  constellations of 100’s, even 1000’s, of small satellites become economically practical and could enable new network structures providing world-wide access to high speed digital communications and unparalleled persistence of global Earth observation. At the same time, the growth of the various terrestrial communications infrastructures (such as 5G) and advances in data handling, management and knowledge extraction – often referred to as ‘Big Data’ – now begin to blur the boundaries between space and terrestrial systems.

Stimulated by the entrepreneurial hotbed in California, there are currently some 160 commercial satellite constellations being proposed worldwide that, all together, would comprise over 25,000 satellites – 90% of which aim to provide some form of digital communications, with the remaining 10% (still several thousand!) focusing on various Earth observation services.

The TripleSat Constellation, launched 2015.

Of course, not all of these proposals will survive investor expectations but it is likely that some will and the new ‘mega’ constellations will pose additional challenges – regular, affordable launch on a tempo and price hitherto not achieved; space traffic management and debris control; the efficient handling of communication of vast amounts of data; safe autonomous orbital operations – and not forgetting communications spectrum and legal or policy issues.

Like the extraordinary number and diversity of ‘SmartPhone Apps’ that have been created by a completely new business community, most of which we would not have dreamed of a decade ago, it is probable that the new smallsats and constellations will stimulate applications that we currently do not envisage – and these will require a different and more agile regulatory environment.

Up to the beginning of this decade, the evolution of small satellites was being driven primarily by advances in microelectronics – continuing the trend observed in the 1960’s by Gordon Moore – whilst the structural designs continued to be based on rather conventional techniques.

In the last 5 years or so there has been a parallel development in new materials that, when combined with robotics, that have given rise to new small satellite manufacturing techniques that not only enhance their capabilities but also further reduce cost and timescale.  Robotic additive (and subtractive) manufacturing techniques now make possible product geometries that were previously physically impossible by human hands – and ‘digital factory’ manufacturing provides freedom of location and dramatically increases speed and diversity of the cycle of design evolution and product innovation.

3D printed bracket on an SSTL satellite, 2016.
It is interesting to note that space, once the preserve of national governments and under their tight control, may soon be dominated by non-state players as the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon build their own global space systems and services. This raises new policy, legal and liability challenges that will require very different thinking by government.
I have focused on the trends in civil & commercial space but, of course, there are similar developments in the military sphere with the adaptation of these new techniques to provide agility, flexibility, persistence and resilience at times when unpredictable threats evolve rapidly and budgets are under constant pressure. Rapidly customised and launched, small satellites can provide an affordable national capability to augment more exquisite assets, provide additional freedom of action, and contribute into allied capabilities.

What of the future: we already on the threshold of reprogrammable ‘software defined satellites’ and, looking a little further ahead, robotic assembly in orbit will soon allow us to construct larger structures ‘lego-like’ – for example, building space telescopes with apertures too big to launch on a single rocket. The current design of satellite structures is largely dictated by the size of the rocket fairing and the harsh physical environment experienced in just the first 20 minutes of ascent through the atmosphere to orbit before embarking on an otherwise physically benign multi-year mission: ‘3-D printing’ in orbit offers the potential simply (but not yet!) to launch bags of sand and metal and then upload instructions to manufacture (or modify) a gossamer satellite in orbit.

Also ahead of us, the discovery of substantial deposits of water on both Moon and Mars means that we will have in situ resources that eventually will enable sustained human habitation on these heavenly bodies.  With the experience gained through the International Space Station in long-duration human spaceflight, the advances in robotics and AI, the techniques that have been pioneered by small satellites, and the rapid commercialisation of launch services will make this, in my view, only a matter of time – measured now in a few decades.

Finally, space in the UK has been rather a well-kept secret; we have a thriving space industry and a strong academic community and both punch above their weight internationally. Space contributes over £13.7Bn and 38,000 jobs to our national economy and is second only to the oil & gas industry in the value per head of its skilled workers. As demonstrated by the ESA Rosetta comet lander and the mission of Tim Peake to the ISS, space has the ability to fire the imagination of the young and not-so-young alike to take an interest in technology, its uses and our place in the universe.





15 May 20170 Comments1 Comment

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