Britain took its first step toward the possible fielding of a low-cost microsatellite for the military with the Oct. 27 launch of the TopSat experimental spacecraft aboard a Russian Cosmos launch vehicle.

TopSat is due to go live Dec. 8, providing high-resolution imaging for commercial applications as well as serving as a test bed for the military to gain experience in using microsatellites, according to QinetiQ project manager Bill Levett.

QinetiQ is leading the British effort with partners Surrey Satellite Technology, the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) and Infoterra. The 14 million pound ($24.9 million) program is jointly funded by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the British National Space Centre.

The project is funded for six months, but that could be extended if Infoterra successfully markets the imagery to non-U.K. commercial customers.

The British military is looking at using low-Earth-orbit microsatellites as part of a mix of assets that would provide persistent intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance.

Interest in microsatellites is not confined to the United Kingdom. The Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation and the Naval Research Laboratory are due to launch early next year a tactical microsatellite experiment of their own, known as TacSat.

That effort is aimed at allowing cheap and quick launching of a variety of payloads to be controlled by theater forces.

TopSat is less overtly military than TacSat, but the ultimate aim of the British MoD would doubtlessly be similar to that of the Pentagon.

The launch of TopSat comes at a time of increasing British military interest in the use of space.

Within the last 12 months the MoD created for the first time a Space Management Group. That spawned a space working group looking at issues such as a space vision, policy, a development road map and a strategy. A space operations working group also is now active.

A little publicized document issued by the MoD earlier this year entitled “The Future Air and Space Operational Concept,” spells out the British armed forces’ view of the possible future use of space, including applications for microsatellites.

The document provides a vision of where the British want to go, but not how to get there. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm for microsatellites is clear. Compared with large spacecraft, small satellites are simpler, quicker to develop and launch, and the capability gap between the two is rapidly deminishing, the document said.

Consequently, it says, “space capability could usefully contribute as an operational asset rather than a strategic one. … Commanders could call on responsive, gap-filling communications and novel space-based surveillance capabilities such as wide-area coverage and multi-spectral imaging and change detection techniques to help visualise the battlespace and provide situational awareness to aid decision-making.”

Supporting that aim, an important part of the TopSat program is to investigate the dissemination of data from the satellite. QinetiQ is providing a lightweight, fully mobile data ground station, known as Rapids, which is able to deliver imagery in near real time.

The MoD is looking at a possible follow-on to TopSat and also is showing interest in the U.S. TacSat work, said an MoD source.

A spokesman for the MoD said Nov. 4 that they were interested in the TopSat concept but were keeping an open mind about where they go next with the idea. “We don’t have a signed-up program and we haven’t set aside any resources and finances,” he said.

The RAL-designed optical camera is able to collect 17- by 17-kilometer images of Earth with a black-and-white resolution of 2.5 meters and a color resolution of 5 meters. Resolution refers to the minimum size of ground objects that can be detected by the camera.

“The satellite was not designed as a military asset. They [the MoD] are using TopSat to evaluate how they could use a low-cost spacecraft,” Levett said. “Nevertheless, it offers a good commercial standard of imagery at a cost hundreds of millions of pounds less than could be provided by current large satellites.”