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Sir Martin Sweeting Space Interview

Yves de Contades interviews Sir Martin Sweeting OBE FRS FREng, GEC of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (the world’s leading small satellite company) and Head of the Surrey Space Centre (the world’s leading research centre for small, low cost space missions).

What projects is the Surrey Space Centre currently working on ?

MNS: The Surrey Space Centre (SSC) has around 100 academic researchers exploring future techniques for advanced small satellites and spacecraft for use in both Earth orbit and beyond. The results of the research are exploited by the Centre's spin-off company, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL) which now has over 500 staff who design, build, launch and operate satellites for international customers in Earth orbit - it has built and launched 39 satellites since 1981. There are some really exciting projects currently underway at SSC, such as: a tiny 5kg 'nanosatellite' the size of a Beach ball that uses a Smart Phone as its 'brain' and will be launched in December this year; another tiny nanosatellite with a deployable 'sail' to demonstrate the ability to de-orbit space debris (for launch next year); micro-rovers for planetary exploration; and a modular 'lego-construction' space telescope using in-orbit robotic assembly. SSTL has some challenging missions under way too - a constellation of very high resolution imaging mini-satellites (1-metre on the ground); a new radar mini-satellite for imaging in all weather and day-&-night to assist in flooding disasters, monitoring deforestation and maritime surveillance; and working with partners in Germany to build all 22 of the European Galileo navigation system that will augment GPS.

How do you see the future of Space exploration over the next ten years?

MNS: Now that we have found large quantities of water trapped within the Moon's regolith, sustained human presence on the lunar surface has suddenly become far more realistic - as we will not have to ferry all our supplies of food, water and fuel there once we have established (robotically) the ability to produce these 'locally' (water + sunlight). The Moon will allow us to develop and exercise the techniques needed for expeditions to Mars: the Moon is a 'day trip away' whereas Mars is an 18-month round journey and the radio transmission time delay necessitates a high degree of autonomy of operations which is best checked out on the Moon first! Mars of course is not the only goal - there are other bodies in the solar system that have intriguing aspects, such as Europa, and I expect that there will be a growing synergy of manned and robotic exploration. The discovery of independent life beyond Earth (which I personally expect we will detect within the next 10 years - maybe sooner) may rejuvenate the public interest in and commitment to space exploration

With the advent of Branson's and Space XC's space travel offers in the next year or so what other developments can we expect in space travel in the foreseeable future?

MNS: The commercial initiatives by Virgin and SpaceX are commendable and will (hopefully) reduce cost but are not going to revolutionise space travel as they are based on optimising conventional technologies; we will need a new mode of transportation. There are some promising technologies being developed, such as the UK initiative Skylon, but these require substantial investments(~£1Bn) and a decade to bring to a usable state. Britain has an opportunity radically to change the way we get into space, but we have not yet demonstrated an appetite to invest in this long-term future.

Will space tourism to the moon or Mars ever become a realistic possibility?

MNS: It is not a big jump from having tourists on the International Space Station (ISS) to offering flights around the Moon (like Apollo-8); landing on the Moon is considerably more expensive. Flights to Mars (and back) is far longer and the danger of exposure to radiation during the flight is a big hurdle.

Is it possible, feasible and cost effective to mine nearby asteroids and planets for resources, if so when?

MNS: It is certainly feasible to mine asteroids but whether it is economical is debatable. If we really run out of key elements to sustain our industrial base, then possibly it will be worth it, but if we just want to mine a valuable element then bringing a large enough amount back to Earth to make it worth the cost of getting it is likely to flood the market and collapse the price!

What companies and areas in the space industry will be interesting to follow as potential investment opportunities in the next few years?

MNS: SpaceX must be a strong contender - and Reaction Engines in the UK if you want a long shot!