Britain Deepens Ties to China’s Space Sector

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PARIS — The British government, seeing China as one of the world’s growth markets for space applications, has deepened its ties to China’s space sector with bilateral agreements on future joint projects and a fund to promote British industry’s search for a foothold in China.

The effort’s first visible result is an agreement with British small-satellite specialist Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), which is already building a three-satellite constellation of medium-resolution Earth observation satellites on the strength of an anchor-tenant contract with a Chinese company.

The British government has determined that space technology is a growth sector and that, with government assistance, British space hardware and service companies should be able to win a far greater share of this growing market.

The government’s first step was to increase, by 25 percent, the British contribution to the 20-nation European Space Agency. It also has invested in private-sector projects that show commercial promise.

The latest investment, totaling 80 million British pounds ($131.3 million) over five years, is called the Global Collaborative Space Programme. Britain’s universities and science minister, David Willetts, said the investment will help make Britain “the partner of choice for countries looking to develop their national capabilities.”

China looks to be the first nation that will be the focus of the new program. The U.K. Space Agency on Dec. 10 said Chief Executive David Parker had signed a memorandum of understanding with China National Space Administration Vice Administrator Zhang Jianhua under which both agencies will identify bilateral efforts “that have the potential to deliver real economic growth” for both countries, the British agency said in a Dec. 10 statement.

Parker was part of a large delegation of British government and industry officials, led by Prime Minister David Cameron, that visited China the week of Dec. 1.

During the visit, SSTL signed agreements with its Earth observation satellite customer, Twenty-First Century Aerospace Technology Co. Ltd. (21AT), relating to the launch of the three SSTL-built optical observation satellites in late 2014 or early 2015.

SSTL and 21AT in June 2011 signed a contract, valued at 110 million British pounds, under which 21AT will finance the three satellites’ construction, launch and insurance. In return, 21AT will have seven years of exclusive use of the imagery.

The 2011 contract was signed during a U.K.-China bilateral summit.

SSTL Chairman Sir Martin Sweeting, in an emailed response to SpaceNews inquiries, on Dec. 10 said the three satellites, carrying a 1-meter-resolution imager, will be launched on a single rocket, for which final negotiations are underway.

Sweeting said the DMC3/BJ2 program — named to reflect that it will be part of the SSTL-coordinated Disaster Monitoring Constellation, which includes the 4-meter-resolution Beijing-1 satellite launched in 2005 — is on schedule and on budget. Beijing-1 was financed by 21AT.

To ease export-regulatory concerns, mainly on the part of the U.S. government, the three satellites will not be launched aboard a Chinese rocket, nor will they travel to China during development, Sweeting said.

While 21AT, under its seven-year lease, will be able to downlink satellite data to its Beijing ground station, the satellites will be owned and operated by SSTL and its associated DMCii company, which manages the Disaster Monitoring Constellation.

The recent agreements signed during the British trade delegation’s visit to Beijing did not include any renegotiation of the 2011 contract. “It is firm, fixed-price,” Sweeting said.

SSTL’s second agreement, with the China Academy of Space Technology, is intended to take advantage of the new Global Collaborative Space Programme financing in advance of a scheduled U.K.-China summit in London in April, Sweeting said.

The Surrey Space Center, which is affiliated with SSTL, already had an agreement to provide the Chinese academy with academic training on small satellites.

 

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