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University of Surrey leads the way with cutting-edge space research

CASE STUDY: UNIVERSITY OF SURREY PIONEERS DEVELOPMENT OF SMALL SATELLITES

The University’s scientific leadership, research expertise and first-class facilities, are particularly valuable to small businesses.

The University of Surrey is a leading research-focused institution that is committed to creating new knowledge and innovations to benefit society. One of the key research themes which stems from this strategy is space and aerospace.

The University’s expertise covers advanced multidisciplinary small satellite and space system engineering techniques for Earth orbit and interplanetary space, as well as innovative communications, remote sensing, robotics and space science payloads for small satellites, and enabling technologies for low-cost space exploitation and planetary exploration. 

The University enjoys close links with the space industry and has developed strategic partnerships with major players including NASA, the UK Space Agency and Airbus, among other distinguished partners. The University’s scientific leadership, research expertise and first-class facilities, are particularly valuable to small businesses. The latter are able to benefit by working closely with academics on ground-breaking research into low-cost small satellites and producing innovative technologies.

Surrey Space Centre

The University of Surrey is home to the Surrey Space Centre (SSC), an academic research centre with a global reputation for small satellite innovation including PhD students, and academic, research and tech/admin support staff. It was formed in 1979 and spun out Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) in 1985. The SSC and SSTL partnership is a synergy of academic research and commercial exploitation

As well as research, teaching and satellite missions, it also houses FAIR-SPACE, the UK national hub for space robotics and autonomous systems.

There have been 70 small satellites (nano-micro-mini: 5-500 kg) built and launched by SSC and SSTL, with programmes in 17 countries including training six new space agencies. Surrey has pioneered the development and application of small satellites, and has over 30 ‘world-firsts’ in small satellites.

Facilitating a future for co-working

Ian James, University of Surrey’s Entrepreneur in Residence

Ian James, the University’s Entrepreneur in Residence, said: “The University of Surrey has a phenomenal capability of materials and fundamental research expertise across space robotics, communications, remote sensing and science exploration that add immense value.


“We firmly believe that technology and science always move forward with collaborative work and fresh ideas, and these projects are a great example of such partnership working. By connecting SMEs with academic resources, in each of these cases, the projects significantly accelerated the development of world-class applications and technologies for use in the global space and other sectors.”


Successful collaborations with business

The University of Surrey has collaborated with businesses on several space-related data and technology projects. Its resources and analytical expertise have been applied in helping to create new technologies based on key capabilities including Earth Observation data analysis, space hardware and communications. These include:

Earth Observation data analysis

Ecometrica, an Edinburgh-based software and data company, which specialises in environmental monitoring solutions, is working in collaboration with the University of Surrey’s Centre for Environment and Sustainability, a leading centre of research into sustainable development, to gather Earth Observation (EO) data to monitor the vulnerability to, and recovery from natural disasters.

Researchers are looking into case studies of flooding in Mexico as well as natural and man-made events in Brazil, which have led to the development of data applications around a new satellite constellation concept for climate resilience.

Alcis provides geographical information services with a particular focus on supporting fragile and conflict affected states such as Afghanistan. In early 2021, Alcis sought to improve its understanding of agricultural cycles and practices in relation to maize mapping and sustainable water use in rural Afghanistan.

By collaborating with the University of Surrey, Alcis was able to develop a novel method for mapping maize crops in past crop cycles. The new method uses the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Sentinel 2 imagery and draws on knowledge of the nature of maize growth and climate variables. This technique significantly enhanced the accuracy of maize classification results, achieving over 99 per cent of correct predictions for the given dataset.

Mantle Labs, a company which specialises in remote sensing, is working with the University of Surrey on a project that integrates EO satellite data and hydrological modelling to measure soil moisture in crop fields. Mantle Labs has drawn on the expertise provided by the University in integrating remote sensing data with soil moisture modelling.

The information on soil moisture has been integrated into Mantle Labs’ existing insurance platform, which in turn, has led to the development a new soil moisture-based drought insurance product. The move has enabled Mantle Labs to become the first remote sensing company in the world to offer end-to-end parametric index insurance products covering the entire spectrum of the agriculture industry from pre-sowing to harvest.

Space hardware

Oxford Space Systems (OSS), a specialist in space technology, is pioneering the development of a new generation of deployable antennas and structures that are lighter, less complex and lower in cost than those in current commercial demand.

By working with the University, OSS was able to employ key expertise in a niche technical area to analyse the effects of a space environment on composite materials. OSS was granted access to the University’s facilities and drew on areas of expertise across multiple departments. This included using labs in the Physics department to determine the thermomechanical properties of resins, running thermal cycling tests at SSC and assessing material characterisation at the Centre for Engineering Materials and Structures.

OSS will use the results gained from this collaboration and apply them to the manufacturing of an engineering qualification model (EQM). The qualified space antenna will then form the basis for a flight unit, which will be placed into orbit.

KISPE Space is a Farnborough-based programme and systems engineering company and is collaborating with SSC on an innovative project to identify a microprocessor that can be used in the next wave of new small satellite missions. The new processor will be used in KISPE Space’s design of a Next Generation Microsatellite Platform.

The results of the project will be shared with the space community as part of KISPE Space’s Open Source Satellite Programme to stimulate the next wave of missions, applications and services. The company hopes that this will lead to the successful launch of a wide range of challenging missions from very low Earth orbit (vLEO) to Lunar that are being envisaged by teams around the world.

TISICS is a supplier of lightweight Metal Matrix Composites (MMCs) for high performance industries. The company is collaborating with the University of Surrey to study fracture testing of MMCs to certify their use in satellite pressure vessels. The University has key expertise in testing materials as well as cutting-edge equipment at its Mechanical Testing Facility and Microstructural Studies Unit.  These will enable TISICS to develop a test method applicable to MMCs and generate data to demonstrate the safe use of fibre reinforced metal composites in spacecraft.

Smart Separations specialises in producing innovative microfiltration (MF) technology. The company is collaborating with the University of Surrey to develop a unique approach to producing monopropellant thrusters for small satellite launches. This involves producing membranes which have a unique microstructure that strengthens their potential to be used as micro-channel catalytic beds.

Smart Separations will use a micro-catalytic reactor at the University’s Chemical Engineering department to verify that high conversion of monopropellant fuel can be achieved, provided a suitable coating is present.

Satellite Vu, a specialist in EO technology and services, is collaborating with the University of Surrey on a major infrared satellite data project which will capture airborne data. This involves flying a Medium Wave Infrared (MWIR) camera on an airplane to gather data from The Solent and surrounding maritime areas, simulating the data that would be captured from a space-based sensor. The University will provide advanced analysis techniques to process and validate the acquired imagery which will focus on the advantages that MWIR might have over Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data for small boat detection. This will enable Satellite Vu to evaluate the capabilities of high resolution space borne MWIR data for measuring the thermal output of structures, which in turn, will help maritime organisations improve the management of their energy consumption and industrial processes, and support their surveillance needs

Satellite Vu is due to procure its first satellite from Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL), a University of Surrey spin-off company, while a further six satellites are due to be launched in 2023. The move will position the company as the first global commercial satellite platform to offer high resolution MWIR data.

Intelcomm is an R&D technology consultancy which develops prototypes and mission critical systems for the communications and aerospace industries. Working collaboratively with the University of Surrey, the company is developing new autonomous decision support system (ADSS) technology to support human and robot interaction in space. To this end, the University will deliver the Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAV)-designed Predictive Maintenance algorithm, a unique fault detection algorithm, which will be integrated into Intelcomm’s space robotic system.

In addition, Intelcomm will utilise the expertise and facilities at the University to demonstrate the feasibility of an enhanced Human-Machine (Autonomous/remote Rover) interface. The use of ADSS will greatly reduce the astronaut’s dependency on Earth-based mission control. It will instead return control to the astronaut to enable a full oversight of the robotic operating systems. This will help astronauts manage difficult or potentially dangerous failure scenarios in a timely manner and avoid escalation, thus ensuring their safety and that of the robotic or autonomous system at the same time.

space

Space communications

TechApp Consultants (TAC) creates bespoke antenna solutions. The company is developing a new range of low-cost and high-performance beam-tracking antennas for non-geostationary (NGSO) satellites in collaboration with the University of Surrey. A key element of TAC’s innovative beam-tracking antennas is the torus type reflector that offers a consistent wide-angle scanning beam along the satellite flightpath. The University of Surrey will provide TAC with expertise in antenna theory and design testing, as well as measurement facilities to enhance the development of new technologies, whilst correcting phase-error and improving torus reflector efficiency. 

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