UK Small Satellites: High Flying

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This piece was written by Ewan Wright during his internship in our Access to Space team. It is well known that the UK punches above its weight in the small satellite industry. But by how much? We define a small satellite as any satellite with a mass less than 500 kg; most of these are CubeSats but this also includes some larger satellites. Operating in low Earth orbit, they are primarily used for remote sensing, communications and technology demonstrations. The Union of Concerned Scientists maintains a database of all satellites currently in orbit, reporting annually. These satellites are not necessarily still functioning. Their most recent count (up to May 2018) lists 1886 satellites; 41% of these are small satellites. In crunching the numbers, we must be careful to differentiate between contractors, operators and launch countries – often these are different. For example, Spire Global, the US based company developing a constellation of signal sensing and occultation satellites, manufactures their satellites in Glasgow, and launch from all around the world. Furthermore, the spread of European multinational companies complicates things: Airbus Defence and Space have manufacturing centres in Stevenage, Toulouse and more recently, Florida, and equipment suppliers across the globe. By filtering the data to small satellites and looking at the country of contractor we can see that, taking into account organisations like Spire who are listed as US but manufacture in the UK, 12% of the satellites in orbit were manufactured in the UK. Some of these satellites are now rather old. To get a more up to date snapshot, we looked at the last 3 years (2016-2018) in the Satellite Applications Catapult small satellite database. The Catapult maintains a database of small satellites launched since 2010 to inform the small satellite market intelligence report, which reports on the trends in size, application and volume of small satellites launched each quarter.

By analysing the database, we found that 15% of the 500+ satellites launched in the last three years were manufactured in the UK. If we remove the 100 or so satellites listed as ‘academic’ (often university CubeSat experiments), this figure rises to 19%.

The dominance of the US is not surprising, especially considering the large ‘Planet effect’ of the 170+ satellites launched by Earth observation company Planet Labs during this time period. What is also interesting is despite the emerging dominance of China in launch (35% of launches this year), this has not yet translated into a large volume of small satellites. We can compare these figures with the country of operation of these satellites. Here we see that the UK operates far fewer satellites than it manufactures, and that the US still dominates.

The small satellite industry will look very different in 5 years. The emergence of constellations and ‘mega-constellations’ of hundreds and thousands of satellites will at least double the number of satellites in orbit, fuelling the growth of small satellite manufacturers and operators and enabling new applications and services. With the current strength of UK small satellite manufacture and launch ambitions, the UK is well set to continue to be a major player in small satellite manufacture. However, with the development of mega-constellations, successfully competing to deliver these opportunities is key to success.  In addition to cost and quality and other usual factors that attract a customer to a country or a company, those that can embrace new manufacturing techniques and the agile supply chains that can deliver the high volumes needed, and mitigate against long fallow periods, will succeed in this fast-changing environment.