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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Exploiting Space With Low-Cost Satellites

At a time when European science budgets are increasingly under pressure UK academia and industry representatives met in London on January 24 to look at opportunities for exploiting space using low cost satellites.

UK industry and academia has developed a unique partnership in designing and building compact and extremely cost effective satellites packed with innovative technology including miniaturised instrumentation, robotics, software and autonomous systems. Such small spacecraft can make a real contribution to scientific research, environmental monitoring, navigation and communications, alongside more traditional larger missions, representatives say.

Through the European Space Agency's (ESA) Cosmic Vision program, which looks at an exploration program for the time period of 2015-2025, there will inevitably be great opportunities for UK industry and academia to provide lead roles in medium and large missions.

Ahead of this it is anticipated that there will be several precursor technology demonstrator missions within ESA's Aurora program which will need lower cost technologies developed over a shorter timescale, and this is where the UK could exploit its expertise in small satellites.

Keith Mason, chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) said, "Whilst it is recognized that some space missions can only be achieved using larger platforms frontier science can be obtained by smaller, more defined satellites. Bigger doesn't necessarily mean better."

The advantages of producing small satellites are multiple. Not only can they be produced over a shorter time scale but they cost significantly less – allowing more regular opportunities for the launch of missions. It can also be argued that small satellites allow for more optimised missions by carrying a single primary instrument. This means that there are no compromise issues which often occur on larger missions carrying a diverse payload, researchers say.

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