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A Stitch in Time: The Knitted Satellite of the Future

Satellites play a crucial role in the modern world, shaping our everyday lives. They enable us to address various challenges and obstacles here on Earth, serving a wide range of purposes, such as Earth observation, communications, navigation, climate monitoring as well as scientific explorations into space.

A Stitch in Time: The Knitted Satellite of the Future

Image Credit: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock.com

The deployment of large satellites, however, requires the use of robust rockets to carry substantial payloads, enabling the attainment of escape velocity and, in turn, the satellites’ placement into the designated orbit around the Earth. However, this approach often proves to be a costly and labor-intensive endeavor.

Thus, to save money, the demand has shifted towards smaller satellites. But this compromise comes at the cost of image quality and data efficiency.  

This is where two UK-based space companies, Oxford Space Systems (OSS) and Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), have come together to build a knitted satellite that is compact and lightweight on launch and, when in orbit, it unfurls a 3-meter parabolic reflector, or to be more precise and technical, wrapped rib antenna mounted to a CarbSAR satellite.

We are delighted with the outcome of this collaboration with SSTL and UKSA. The highly innovative OSS Wrapped Rib Antenna, combined with SSTL’s digital and RF electronics provides a compact SAR payload for smallsat missions and we are already seeing strong international customer interest for this product.

Sean Sutcliffe, Chief Executive, Oxford Space Systems

Wrapped Rib and SAR: 24/7 Technology

The innovative satellite works by releasing its carbon-fiber ribs from a central hub; this then forms a 3 m diameter parabolic dish which is able to support a high-performing metal mesh reflector surface to accommodate the SAR satellite.

The 3 m “Wrapped Rib” architecture is made from a knitted metal mesh. The knitted nature of the satellite gives it the flexibility to be stowed away in a small compact area during launch.

This makes the technology compatible with spacecraft less than 150 kg and, in effect, easier and cheaper to launch.

Moreover, this pioneering combination of OSS’s wrapped ribbed technology and SSTL’s pioneering SAR (synthetic aperture radar) allows the satellite to capture high-resolution images in almost all weather conditions, day or night.

SSTL’s groundbreaking SAR antenna technology achieves cost-effective performance when launched into orbit. SAR is a type of radar able to capture 2D images or reconstruct objects and the topographies of landscapes in 3D.

When attached to a spacecraft, such as a satellite, the motion of the SAR radar antenna allows it to scan a particular area of interest with greater spatial resolutions compared to those of traditional beam-scanning radars.

OSS and SSTL have both confirmed that their satellite technology has completed and passed a rigorous ground-based test program.

Embedding the SAR electronics directly into our core avionics simplifies the architecture, combined with the impressive stowage volume of the Wrapped Rib has enabled SSTL to develop a very capable CarbSAR product providing high resolution X-band SAR imaging capabilities day, night and whatever the weather.

Andrew Haslehurst, Chief Technology Officer, SSTL

UK-Based Innovation

OSS and SSTL’s partnership further demonstrates how the UK is taking a new approach to assume a prominent position in the global space industry. This is supported by the government’s National Space Strategy, which is growing in stature and influence to mark out a new trajectory to make the UK a major player in the space sector.

Funded by OSS, SSTL, the National Security Strategic Investment Fund (NSSIF), Airbus Defence and Space, and the MoD, the long-term goal is to build a strong foundation for future  UK-based innovation in the global space industry.

As well as the novel knitted launch-compact configuration, the synthetic aperture radar (SAR) concept could draw interest from other major international customers interested in launching cost-effective, high-performance Earth observation systems.

The commitment of OSS and SSTL is to work with funding partners and bring new satellite technologies with advanced 24/7 monitoring capabilities to support the current demands of “big data” change detection and surveillance analytics applications.

OSS and SSTL also claim that their innovative knitted SAR satellite will have the capacity to tackle other Earth-based challenges we are facing, which will need to be addressed in the not-too-distant future, including disaster monitoring, urban planning, climate, and transport management.

References and Further Reading

News and blogs (2023) OXFORD SPACE SYSTEMS AND SSTL TO LAUNCH CARBSAR IN ORBIT DEMONSTRATION MISSION TO SHOWCASE INNOVATIVE WRAPPED RIB ANTENNA. Available at: https://oxford.space/post/?permalink=oxford-space-systems-and-sstl-to-launch-carbsar-in-orbit-demonstration-mission-to-showcase-innovative-wrapped-rib-antenna (Accessed: 19 May 2023).

Deployable SAR antenna payload (no date) SSTL. Available at: https://www.sstl.co.uk/space-portfolio/missions-in-build/2022/deployable-sar-antenna-payload (Accessed: 19 May 2023).

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David J. Cross

Written by

David J. Cross

David is an academic researcher and interdisciplinary artist. David's current research explores how science and technology, particularly the internet and artificial intelligence, can be put into practice to influence a new shift towards utopianism and the reemergent theory of the commons.

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