The small satellite market has been heating up over the past few years, with many new companies looking to launch constellations of satellites. Surrey Satellite has been at the forefront of this movement, with a mission to change the economics of space, and a growing commitment to the market in the United States. Sensors & Systems (S&S) editor Matt Ball recently spoke with Doug Gerull, chief operating officer of Surrey Satellite Technology US LLC (Surrey), about the company’s growing presence in the United States, the evolution of the small satellite market, and upcoming missions that will soon fill the satellite manufacturing clean room in their Colorado office.
S&S: One of the things that fascinates me about Surrey overall is the scientific innovation with all of your off-the-shelf sensors that are also combined with launch scheduling, bringing high-performing satellite platforms to a much broader audience. Now you’ve added the Orbital Test Bed (OTB) that allows for space testing of sensors, providing essentially a laboratory for testing. It’s almost as if you’re pioneering scientific rigor for satellite development as a service.
Gerull: In the case of OTB, we are selling reliable platforms to access space. Going to space on a Surrey bus is a safe way to get there, that has been proven. Also, because we are cost effective, it’s an affordable way to get there.
We often talk about closing the business case, and keeping it closed is one of the difficulties for organizations that have payloads orphaned by other programs. You have a payload that often costs X millions of dollars, a certain amount of years of time and effort, and then you find that your ride to space is gone through a change in another program. Getting another ride to space, both in terms of platform and launch, can be difficult.
Our OTB concept has many advantages — Surrey has a rapid launch tempo, we’re open to accommodating other payloads, we have a lower price point, we have experience, and we work globally. That gives our customers a way to get to space that they may not have otherwise.
On larger and more complex programs, the ability to squeeze in and put your small payload on there and get to space can be really hard to accomplish. We give our customers an avenue to get there.
S&S: With the OTB concept, it sounds tricky to design and tune the satellite to meet the needs of a diversity of sensors.
Gerull: We have to design the spacecraft to accommodate all of the payloads properly. From the various pointing requirements, communications bandwidth downlink and payload operations. We’ll be controlling the OTB mission from here, downlinking the data from the various experiments to our own dish and then sending the data to the various payload providers. We do offer a complete service that makes it a lot easier for customers to concentrate on their science.
A good customer example is NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a very accomplished group of scientists and engineers. They are putting the Deep Space Atomic Clock (DSAC) up on our platform, but we’re actually running the satellite, and downloading the data, and that lets them concentrate on the science of their mission, and the payload itself.
S&S: How did you go about determining the orbit of OTB, and working with the various payload customers on integration?
Gerull: We already had an idea of what OTB was going to accomplish from our perspective, and we had to take payloads that were compatible with that. The orbit wouldn’t be compatible with an earth observation mission, for example, because those are typically near polar and sun sync. It worked out that these payloads are all compatible, and the testing platforms were all good for them.
S&S: Does it take longer sometimes than others on these shared payloads to fill your available capacity?
Gerull: The question about filling all the seats on the ride is very much on our minds because we plan on repeating this experience. In the case of OTB itself, it’s a specialized skill to take the five payloads, including our own composite experiments, and integrate them all. All of these components and missions, whether solar or radiation detection, or the atomic clock, all have different parameters, have to be run at different times, send out at different data rates, etc.. They have to be positioned, with some that need to look in a certain direction and not be obscured. They all assume they’re the only thing on the payload for their own experimental objectives.
The skill set to take all the payloads and put them on a single satellite so that they all work, and everyone gets the benefit of a shared ride, is pretty unique. It’s like a very complicated Lego set where all the pieces are random shapes. The team we have in the United States is getting more accomplished at that, and we plan on keeping that as a business line. The team in the UK is already well experienced with that, because they’ve been doing it for some time.
S&S: For satellite launches, do you have a number of slots on different rockets lined up? Is that the way it works?
Gerull: There are hard arrangements with a time and date and a mission in mind, and then there are softer arrangements where you keep your eyes and ears open. You’d think that it would be more discrete and nailed down because these launches are very expensive, but it’s not like that. Sometime Surrey will negotiate a block of launches in advance in anticipation of business to get a better price. It’s like any other commodity, where you can negotiate economy of scale if you have it.
We tend to get most of our benefit in the UK because of our rapid tempo. We’ve worked with every satellite launch provider, with the exception of the Japanese and Chinese. All of the launch providers know that Surrey will be launching more satellites every few months. The team in the UK has a lot of experience and knows what the launch industry is doing with a high degree of certainty.
Bigger missions that have a high cost tend to be more concrete, tying up their own rocket at times, and you won’t see other aerospace manufacturers running around to the extent that Surrey does, interfacing with everyone in the launch industry all the time to see if there is space available. Sometimes we end up brokering the launch service as a separate business because we’re active and we know what’s going on.
We’re not the biggest or most expensive, but we are very active when you look at the number of satellites that we put up.
S&S: That ties into the more and more smaller satellites, with the micro satellite revolution that seems to be upon us. The barriers are coming down with the commercialization of space, with a lot of new companies out there.
Gerull: You have to think that the trends are in that direction. There are a lot of reasons that this is happening as it’s a complex model, but one of the key things is that it’s less and less about capacity and more about capabilities. There was a tight equation between size and what you could do with it up until recently. As the technologies started to minimize, and as technologies started to make their way to space that weren’t exclusively designed for space, we’ve had more interest. We’ve had astronauts take their phones into space and have had more computing power in those than the processors running the Shuttle.
As the capabilities of parts from ground-based industry became usable in space, it drove costs down. For instance the CAN Bus, which is used in automotive circles, has been used in Surrey’s satellites for a long time now. It’s reliable, as the auto industry has to make things reliable because they can’t tolerate a lot of defects. We gain a very flexible networking interfacing system that is designed for a huge industry that is going to keep it stable and modern, and they are paying for the development costs. Taking those parts to space keeps the costs down, and instead of getting all the aerospace manufacturers to downsize and standardize their products, the auto industry is paying for ongoing research and development. They keep it up to date, and it’s the standard across manufacturers.
The capabilities of payloads have also improved. Now, small telescopes that would take a lot of mass and weight to accomplish a certain resolution a few years ago are now being miniaturized. The capabilities are no longer completely tied to the size of the spacecraft, and that means we now get small spacecraft that have the capability of a very large one just a decade ago. That trend line is just continuing. The capabilities are getting better, and the spacecraft sizes are getting smaller, so it’s great for Surrey.
S&S: Weight is such an issue in space, are you shaving off any weight on the components as you make them ready for space?
Gerull: We’re looking at innovative ways to make use of excess launch capacity. Sometimes the space within payloads right now is not utilized. So there’s been some experiments and missions where they use an “ESPA ring” to actually be the spacecraft rather than just the mounting space between. There are often two to three thousand kilograms that could go to space, but the space just isn’t being utilized for technical, time constraints, or other issues.
Sometimes miniaturization is not the goal. Components are getting pretty small anyway, and now it’s a state of taking existing components and integrating them, without the need to miniaturize things ourselves. The trend in electronics is to make things smaller, which is in our favor since we don’t have to accelerate that. Materials are getting stronger and lighter, generally, too.
It’s mainly a matter of taking advantage of the latest tools, new capabilities, engineering and science, and applying them to the problem as opposed to us having to go out there and address miniaturizing the components. Surrey has excelled at taking advantage of things that are there, and putting them together in creative ways to come up with a new solution that’s smaller, cheaper, faster — and changing the economics of space.
S&S: Low earth orbit (LEO) is pretty much where most of your satellites are placed, is that right?
Gerull: That’s true if you analyze all the missions we’ve done to date. That’s been the most benign environment for smallsats. Going back close to 30 years now, the parts that we have to work with are more radiation and fault tolerant generally than they were then, and we have built larger spacecraft for higher orbits and tougher radiation environments.
GIOVE-A (the precursor to the European Galileo navigation satellites) has been up there nine years now in a NEO orbit. So, we’ve proven that we can build a satellite quickly and robustly, in a very short timeline (it was built in just two years) to send a signal down so that they could verify the signal frequency.
Following on from that, Surrey builds the Galileo payloads, and they go out of our facility at a consistent rate. They get put on a different vendor’s spacecraft, but we have capability to build both payloads and platforms. Lastly, we are developing and going through certification now, our new GEO (geo-stationary) platforms, which is the toughest radiation orbit. We intend to play more in the GEO belt.
S&S: Is there a move toward more constellations of your own? You’ve certainly pioneered earth observation satellite constellations with DMCii, and a lot of these new companies are talking about having more than 20 satellites with daily imagery refresh rates.
Gerull: It’s part of our customer’s plans, so it’s part of our plans. The constellations are a direct result of the fact that satellites are more cost effective and more affordable now, so that lends itself to being able to afford more and then examining if that helps the mission. Better yet, a mission that might not have been possible with one more expensive satellite might be possible for four or five less expensive ones.
For example, when revisit time is the point of interest, one big satellite may help you capture a lot of data, but you may not revisit as often. Those equations are changing quickly.
The general trend is that satellites are smaller, less expensive, and more capable so you have options of what you can do with more of them. This gives you the systems like RapidEye and others that are good examples. That’s what you can do with multiple satellites that are less expensive; and of course your risks are spread. Constellations are a natural outgrowth of more capable small satellites, and that’s just going to grow I think.
DMCii as you mentioned is a constellation of satellites of different types that can be activated for missions such as disaster response. We have customers that built the satellites for their own reasons and own missions, and then the idea was to provide a secondary source for distributing their extra capacity. We have all these customers with disparate needs, and their data business provides them a compelling cost recovery, but our main mission is still to build satellites, so we’re not a competitor to any earth observation data providers.
S&S: The new small satellite companies are marketing themselves as Internet-based data providers, with Silicon Valley locations as their calling cards. What’s your take on these companies?
Gerull: Kudos to Skybox and Planet Labs, with their business models and innovation, and certainly raising awareness. The long-term test will be the products that they will deliver for geospatial use. They have definitely cut new ground in terms of speed of financing. If there’s one big takeaway from Google’s purchase of Skybox, it’s a validation of smallsats.
S&S: Are you seeing more interests from new startup companies that are looking to Surrey to build a constellation?
Gerull: Yes. That is getting into our strengths. We are an open company in the sense that we sell everything we make. We’re also vertically integrated in the sense that we build telescopes, we build sensors, we build our own reaction wheels, you name it. There’s very little of the spacecraft that we don’t build internally.
The other way we’re open is that while we’re vertically integrated we’re not wedded to our own telescope, for example. If a customer comes to us with an idea for a new remote sensing system that requires something different than what we’ve engineered, we look to other sources before building a new one.
Because Surrey has a track record of being cost effective, we have a heightened launch tempo, and we have a high capability in a broad array of domain expertise (communications, navigation, earth observation), so we are a logical choice for entrepreneurial efforts. Our legacy is heritage systems, and deriving systems from baselines that have already flown, which is how we keep the cost down. The fact that we’ve done it before means when we sit down with the customer, and if they use all our capabilities to design a complete system, they get the maximum benefit out of Surrey.
We get a lot of interest, and of course we can’t talk about the companies because they’re often competitors of each other. We’re in the satellite building business, and it’s exciting right now because a lot of interesting things are occurring.