PARIS — Commercial-off-the-shelf components are now just as reliable as hardware specifically developed for satellites, a development that, with Moore’s Law, has triggered the current explosion in small-satellite use for commercial, scientific and government missions, according to the chairman of a company that pioneered small-satellite development.

Sir Martin Sweeting, chairman of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), said commercial-off-the-shelf — or COTS — components built for today’s consumer electronics devices are reversing a 50-year history in which space technologies irrigated terrestrial industries.

“COTS components now exhibit extreme reliability and low so-called random failure events,” Sweeting said in a March 24 lecture to the Royal Aeronautical Society in London. “COTS have essentially become the new HiRel. It is this that is essentially the basis for the small-satellite revolution.”

Guildford, England-based SSTL was an early revolutionary, launching its first satellite in 1979. Sweeting conceded that the early models were considered offbeat, followed by later versions with performance he said was judged “interesting” and leading to today’s small satellites, whose utility for commercial and noncommercial interests is well-demonstrated.

With the help of Moore’s Law, which says the amount of computing power of a given chip doubles about every 18 months, and by the sophistication and mass production of digital equipment like smartphones, it is now terrestrial advances that are providing breakthrough developments to the space sector, Sweeting said.

“The manufacturing process revolution reduces random failure almost to zero,” Sweeting said. 

“In essence, we have reversed what we were doing since the 1960s, where space created high technology that was then used on Earth. Here we are seeing these devices for our domestic and leisure use being used to enhance capabilities in space. This has fundamentally changed the economics of space.”

Sweeting’s company, now owned by Airbus Defence and Space but operated as an independent entity, has launched 41 small satellites weighing between 3.5 kilograms and 660 kilograms since 1979.

Along the way, the satellites have become more powerful, to the point where SSTL has been named prime contractor for five constellations of low-orbiting satellites for Earth observation and science programs both commercial and governmental.

SSTL has 22 more satellites under construction and is building 24 satellite payloads, including 22 for the European Union’s Galileo positioning, navigation and timing satellite constellation.

It was SSTL that built Europe’s first navigation satellite, Giove-A, which was launched 30 months after contract signing and was instrumental in securing European Union rights to the Galileo radio frequencies.

Established companies in Europe, who have long viewed SSTL’s success with a mixture of agitation and resentment, say SSTL’s Galileo performance is not an unblemished success. The company has been late in delivering the first of the 22 payloads it is building for the operational constellation.

Sweeting said the company is now producing a Galileo payload every six weeks.

SSTL began by using its university affiliation and a supply of graduate students to build technology research satellites and to train emerging-market nations in satellite manufacturing. It has conducted 18 such programs up to now and helped create a situation where 62 nations now have their own satellites in orbit.

As the cost of building a functioning spacecraft, weighing only a few kilograms, has dropped, more and more universities are offering their students the chance to fly their own spacecraft. Sweeting said only about 50 percent of total small satellites launched so far have been fully functional.

“The success rate has been rather poor,” he said, both because of manufacturing inexperience and, especially, inexperience in operating satellites in orbit.

But commercial companies such as San Francisco-based Planet Labs, which is launching 28 four-kilogram satellites from the international space station for deployment from there and plans a 100-satellite constellation, are turning out functional satellites “like sausages,” Sweeting said. 

Sweeting said he has counted about 124 “cubesats,” or very small satellites weighing only a few kilograms.

In addition to Planet Labs and Skybox Imaging, with a submeter imager on 120-kilogram satellites, the commercial interest in small spacecraft was clearly demonstrated by Surrey’s DMC-3 constellation, with a 1-meter-resolution optical imager. A Chinese company essentially purchased the full production of the three-satellite constellation for the satellites’ first seven years of operations in a contract valued at 118 million British pounds, or about $170 million.

Sweeting said that to generate a return on its investment, the Chinese customer will need to sell the equivalent of 40,000 British pounds of imagery per day, seven days a week, for seven years.

But Moore’s Law and manufacturing-quality improvements are running up against the physics of optical observation. Sweeting said it appears that small satellites are about to hit a wall in terms of imaging precision, with a limit of about 50 centimeters.

In addition, the size of a mirror that can be launched aboard today’s rockets is about reaching its limit with NASA’s $8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, in development and scheduled for launch at the end of this decade. The telescope has a 6.5-meter-diameter primary mirror.

To solve that problem, he said, Surrey Space Centre is working with the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory — both in Pasadena, Calif. — on designs for clusters of very small satellites, each weighing around 10 kilograms and carrying a mirror, to be launched in orbit and then assembled, Lego style, into a large imaging sensor — then disassembled and reassembled for different applications.

“We first need to demonstrate in orbit both assembly and disassembly,” Sweeting said. “This is not easy. I am happy to say that the satellite side is our problem and the mirrors is JPL’s problem.”

SSTL reported revenue of 127.3 million pounds in 2013, up 58 percent over 2012.

Follow Peter on Twitter: @pbdes

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said, SSTL is working with the California Institute of Technology, not Surrey Space Centre.

Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.