Small-satellite Specialist Already Eyeing U.S. Expansion

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SAN FRANCISCO — Although Surrey Satellite Technology-U.S. LLC (SST-US) moved into its new manufacturing facility in Englewood, Colo., only one month ago, company officials already are anticipating future expansion of the U.S. subsidiary of Britain’s Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. “Ten years from now, I think we will have a nucleus in Colorado and a presence in California, Washington, D.C., and Florida,” John Paffett, SST-US chief executive, said.

Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. established its U.S. subsidiary in 2008, primarily to market the firm’s small satellites and provide systems engineering services to U.S. customers. In March, SST-US moved to its new U.S. headquarters, a facility designed to accommodate expansion of the company’s operations during the next three to four years. That facility, which includes offices, laboratories, clean rooms, payload integration and testing areas as well as a mission operations center, “should be able to accommodate work on two to three spacecraft comfortably,” Paffett said.

In the near term, most of the satellites built by SST-US are likely to weigh 150 to 300 kilograms and be destined for low Earth orbit. SST-US also is “pursing opportunities to build small satellites for geosynchronous orbit,” Paffett said.

Growth of the U.S. market for small satellites has been hampered in recent years by constrained government funding. In the years ahead, SST-US anticipates increased demand for small satellites among commercial entrepreneurs and U.S. government customers. “The need for space-based solutions will continue growing and growing, but budgets are not endless,” Paffett said. “So you need to do more with less.”

Dominic DePasquale of SpaceWorks Enterprises Inc. agrees the U.S. small-satellite market is poised for growth. “There is clearly a lot of demand for satellites weighing less than 50 kilograms,” DePasquale, the firm’s director of Washington operations, said in an April 17 email. “We see the 100-200 kilogram category as the second largest growth area.” In the near term, that growth will be driven largely by strong demand for space-based communications and Earth observation, he added.

Over time, SpaceWorks Enterprises anticipates growing demand for small satellites among U.S. defense agencies. “U.S. military leadership is placing an increased priority on small satellites,” DePasquale said. “In the future, we expect that will translate into more small satellite programs and procurements.”

At the same time, people interested in employing small satellites in new businesses are likely to pay attention to early ventures, including the microsatellite constellation being developed by Skybox Imaging of Mountain View, Calif., and the PlanetIQ weather satellite constellation backed by Moog Inc. of East Aurora, N.Y., Moog Broad Reach of Golden, Colo., and Millennium Engineering and Integration Co. of Arlington, Va. “If companies like Skybox and PlanetIQ can demonstrate success, it may pave the way for more commercial activity,” DePasquale said.

That U.S. entrepreneurial market is a key focus of SST-US. The firm plans to help entrepreneurs find ways to make money using space-based products and services, Paffett said. As an example, he describes how Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. worked for three years with the German entrepreneur who founded the Earth imagery firm RapidEye to identify a subset of his requirements that could be performed by small satellites at a cost low enough to attract investors. “Twenty years ago there was no market for our products, Paffett said. “We have stimulated that market. We are planning to do that in the U.S. by decreasing the price for performance.”

The first satellite being built in the new SST-US facility is the Orbital Test Bed, a low Earth orbit ride-share mission scheduled to launch in early 2015. SST-US began soliciting payloads for the mission in April 2012. The company is continuing to advertise space on the mission for single or multiple payloads with a mass of 45 kilograms. The mission is designed to give government and commercial customers an opportunity to send subsystems and equipment into orbit on a mission expected to last five years, according to the SST-US online solicitation.