SSTL closing US factory, centralizing manufacturing back in UK

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WASHINGTON — British small satellite manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) is closing down a Denver factory in favor of centralizing spacecraft production back in the United Kingdom.

SSTL formed its U.S. subsidiary, Surrey Satellite Technology-US, in 2008, and opened a factory in the Denver suburb of Englewood, Colorado, to specifically focus on the vibrant U.S. small satellite market. At one time, the company had ambitions of growing that office to upwards of 200 people, but growing competition in small satellite manufacturing scuttled those plans.

“There has been an explosion in commercial smallsat constellations that has created a whole new business area, which very aligns with what we want to do,” Sarah Parker, SSTL’s managing director, told SpaceNews. “The U.S. is still a key market, but we’ve reached a conclusion that we need a different organizational set up than we’ve had in the previous years.”

SST-US’s Denver facility is capable of fully manufacturing and integrating satellites. Parker said SSTL will keep a sales team in the U.S. and will complete all U.S. projects, but future work will be done back in the U.K.

“We will be ramping down our operations in Denver, reducing the headcount,” she said.

Parker said the exact number of people SST-US will let go has not been determined. SSTL’s decision to layoff workers in the U.S. is not related to the decline in geostationary telecommunications satellite orders that triggered a reduction in workers at Space Systems Loral, Parker said. The majority of SSTL’s business is in remote sensing, navigation and science — spacecraft typically found in non-geosynchronous orbits.

Instead, Parker said it was more out of concern that the smallsat movement the company had championed for years had picked up steam and was moving without SSTL.

“We had grown slightly fatter, slightly more complacent, so we are doing a lot of work on our organization. We started last year and changed our organizational structure internally. We changed the way our teams are organized so we now have a much flatter structure with more autonomy,” she said.

SSTL is not reducing its headcount in the U.K., Parker said.

SSTL will also outsource more work for new satellite contracts, Parker said. In the past, the company would increase its headcount by as much as 20 percent for new contract awards, but that model is not manageable given the cyclical work demands of satellite manufacturing, she said.

Parker said SSTL’s focus in recent years had been more on fulfilling missions in the company’s backlog, and less about the company’s tagline of “changing the economics of space.”

“The focus is going to come back to doing more fast-paced missions,” she said. “We are looking at doing things that are simpler to build.”

Carbonite-1, a technology demonstrator satellite SSTL launched in 2015 aboard an Indian Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, is one such example. Parker said the 80-kilogram satellite took six months to build, and was designed to last just long enough to capture and download a video from space. The satellite has to date captured “tens of videos and thousands of images,” she said, and is continuing to operate as intended.

“We want to be doing more of this,” Parker said. “What we did on Carbonite-1 is not enough. If we are really going to change the way we use space and explore the solar system, we need to fundamentally change the way we build our spacecraft. We need to have another major leap forward. Our satellites need to be simpler to build and simpler to operate, and cost less.”

SSTL Carbonite-1
SSTL’s Carbonite-1 demonstration spacecraft prior to launch in 2015. Credit: SSTL

Other projects at SSTL include a “satellite on a board” — something Parker described as “a single module that does all the thinking and managing of a satellite.” That module would be produced by the thousands, she said, using standard interfaces to reduce costs by simplicity and scale of production.

Parker said SSTL is designing a new spacecraft bus for beyond-LEO applications called the Versatile Altitude Mini-Platform, or VAMP, that can carry a 500-kilogram payload. Possible missions include geosynchronous telecommunications, in-orbit servicers, or interplanetary missions, she said. VAMP draws from Giove-A, a navigation satellite launched for the European Space Agency in 2005, and Eutelsat Quantum, a telecommunications satellite that SSTL parent company Airbus Defence and Space is building around an SSTL-payload.

Parker said SSTL is also partnering with ground segment companies to speed up satellite downlinks, Telemetry, Tracking, and Command, and to create more automated, potentially even autonomous, satellite control. She declined to say which companies SSTL is working with on those projects.