Star Turn

March 17, 2000

With space toys that look like something from the Early-Learning Centre, Surrey University is rivalling Nasa. Pat Leon meets the man putting Surrey into orbit

A youngish man clutching a metal contraption the size of a Quality Street tin walks into the lecture theatre and students immediately cluster to the front.

"No ice-cream, no popcorn todayI just something to soften you up," says Craig Underwood as he sets the as yet unidentified flying object on the table.

The gilded hexagon that the students are drooling over is a nano-satellite. "It's called Snap, the next generation, just like in Star Trek," says Underwood, "and the US Air Force wants it."

This is good news for Surrey University Space Centre, where Underwood teaches, researches and makes low-cost satellites. He is leading the development of Snap-I, due to launch from Baikanur, Kazakhstan, this spring.

Today he is lecturing to 16 or so MSc students about managing small satellite programmes and their history. Most are full-time overseas students from Greece, Malaysia, Singapore, Pakistan and Cameroon. The British students present are mostly part-time and some work for the university's own company - Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd.

Underwood says that in the 1970s no one took small satellites seriously. "They were seen as toys. From a small start, spacecraft had got bigger and more complex to become multimillion dollar affairs built by huge teams."

This polarised the haves and have-nots, he says. "You had the United States, Soviet Union and Europe on one side and then the rest of the world," says Underwood. "But new technologies mean we can reduce costs. Many nations now have small-satellite programmes."

Amateur radio enthusiasts were the pioneers. Surrey students launched the Guildford campus's first generation of satellites, UoSAT-Oscar 9, in 1981. By 1990, Nasa and European Space Agency, on whose rockets the Surrey satellites were hitching a ride, were getting interested.

Underwood lists the advantages in running a small programme: lower costs, greater flexibility, shorter project time, higher motivation, less labour, more possibility of taking risks on cutting-edge technology.

In its short life the centre has run almost 20 missions. "But people are the key technology. By building satellites in the context of a university, you get accused of using cheap labour, but it is the opposite. For us it is better to use a few very experienced, if highly paid, senior engineers," says Underwood.

The second part of the three-hour session is a slide show of the history of the design, building and testing of Surrey's small satellites. Men and women dressed in white coats with blue headscarves are pictured sticking pieces of metal together in the "clean rooms" where the satellites are built and tests are run. Samples of an old circuit board and a heavy metal module box are passed up the lecture theatre rows.

The lifespan of the satellites has varied and their payloads have become more sophisticated. By UoSAT-5 the satellites were imaging the oil fires in Kuwait during the 1992 Gulf war.

"Today we are seeing much finer detail in infrared," says Underwood. These satellites monitor radiation, the ozone layer, other spacecraft, agriculture and natural disasters. "They will soon be reading electricity meters from space."

The Snap generation is the result of an undergraduate project to try to build a satellite the size of a football. "It was called Snap because it is easy to take apart," says Underwood.

He takes out a tiny video camera and a stabiliser - a gyroscope: "looks like something from an early-learning centre", says Underwood.

Surrey plans to launch a constellation of small satellites to orbit over the Equator and provide communication for southeast Asia. It is even planning a mini-satellite mission to the Moon with Lunarsat 2002.

"If you add it all up we have 100 orbit years of experience," concludes Underwood. "Our goal is to put ourselves three or four years ahead of Nasa."

The students are impressed. Student Richard Lancaster says: "This is a hard facts course. We are not here to talk. We have labs that are separate where we can do that. When we are here we want hard facts."

Another student, from Singapore, says: "Craig's lectures are always long, but they are lots of fun. He's always bringing in hoola-hoops, balls and toys."

The gadgets may seem like space toys on Earth, but out in space Surrey's nano, micro and mini-satellites are the shape of things to come.

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