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Surrey To Build Three Optical Imaging Satellites for Chinese Firm

PARIS — Small-satellite specialist Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL) of Britain will build three high-resolution optical Earth observation satellites for a Chinese customer that has agreed to pay most of the system’s construction, launch and insurance costs up front in return for seven years’ exclusive use of the imagery, SSTL announced June 29.

Beijing-based Twenty-First Century Aerospace Technology Co. Ltd. (21AT) will be paying 110 million British pounds ($170.2 million) to cover the entire cost of the three satellites’ delivery in orbit, expected to occur in 2014.

Guildford-based SSTL will be building the 1-meter-resolution spacecraft under contract to its subsidiary, DMC International Imaging Ltd., which currently operates a small fleet of disaster-monitoring Earth observation satellites called the Disaster Monitoring Constellation.

The 21AT company has been a partner in this constellation and financed the construction and launch, by SSTL, of the Beijing-1 satellite, which has a 4-meter ground resolution and has been in orbit since 2005.

Under the contract announced June 29 and signed June 27 in the presence of British Prime Minister David Cameron and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, 21AT will make a series of payments, beginning immediately, that will be used to build the three satellites.

Sir Martin Sweeting, SSTL’s founder and chairman, said neither SSTL nor its DMC subsidiary will need outside financing to build, launch and insure the three satellites given the timing of the payments expected from 21AT.

In a June 29 interview, Sir Martin said the British and Chinese parties have agreed that any unforeseen increases in launch or insurance costs will be financed by 21AT. “We have estimated these costs conservatively, but of course we cannot be sure of what the market rate will be until we go to the market to contract the launch or the insurance,” Sir Martin said.

The three identical satellites will be evolved versions of the spacecraft design that SSTL has been building for a number of years, with the most recent models built for Nigeria as part of the Disaster Monitoring Constellation. These spacecraft are scheduled for launch aboard a Russian-Ukrainian Dnepr converted ballistic missile in the coming weeks.

For the 21AT contract, Sir Martin said SSTL and the British government consulted with the U.S. government to calm any concerns about technology transfer as the spacecraft are built.

SSTL and DMC, based on their experience with the Disaster Monitoring Constellation, for the past year have been seeking partners for what they called the DMC3 constellation, which would employ a business model resembling the sale of satellite telecommunications bandwidth.

Instead of owning the satellites or operating them, DMC3 customers would lease a certain amount of capacity — meaning image-taking ability — over a certain amount of time. Depending on the capacity agreed to, other customers would also use the satellites.

Sir Martin said SSTL and DMC have focused on 21AT almost exclusively in recent months as the first DMC3 customer because of the exceptionally large demand in China for Earth observation for urban planning and general land management in addition to disaster monitoring.

“When we talked to them about it, they said they could use basically all the capacity we had on the three satellites,” Sir Martin said. “Now that we have this contract under our belts we will look for other customers to add a fourth satellite.”

For 21AT, adding a fourth satellite would build backup capacity in to the constellation and also reduce the amount of time between visits of a satellite over a given area of China. The contracted image requirement for 21AT then would be spread over four satellites instead of three.

The satellites being developed are expected to weigh about 350 kilograms at launch and to offer a ground resolution of 1 meter in black-and-white mode, and 4 meters in color. Ground resolution means the diameter of an object that could be detected by the satellite, if not necessarily identified with precision.

Each spacecraft will be able to swivel on its axis by 45 degrees off nadir, permitting it to image areas not directly beneath it and thus increasing the revisit rate. Each image will have a swath of 23 kilometers.

The satellites will have an on-board memory storage capacity of 128 gigabytes and an image-transmission capability of 320 megabits per second.

The Chinese customer will be able to command the satellite to take images of a given area, but will not have control of the spacecraft. No Chinese engineers will be trained in satellite design for the program, and for the moment SSTL has no intention of launching the satellites aboard a Chinese rocket. These concessions were made to reassure British and U.S. government officials that the transaction steers clear of technology-transfer concerns, which in the United States are known as ITAR rules, or International Traffic in Arms Regulations.

Sir Martin said that while the transaction might be seen as competing with current and planned Earth observation satellites owned by Astrium Services — which like SSTL is owned by the Astrium division of Europe’s EADS aerospace giant — the deal would have been more difficult to accomplish without the help of Astrium and EADS.

“EADS provided us with financial guarantees for the customer that our former owner, the University of Surrey, could not have provided,” Sir Martin said, referring to guarantees that would reimburse 21AT in the event of a contract breach by DMC or SSTL .


by P. de Selding