On 27 Oct 05 with little or no publicity, a COSMOS 3m rocket launched from Plesetsk in Russia delivered the UK’s TopSat into 600 km polar low earth orbit. Designed by engineers from QineriQ, a UK defence research company, the TopSat was mated to the launch adapter structure on 23 Oct 05 along with some other satellites. On 25 – 26 Oct 05, after the removal of the camera aperture cover, the rocket fairing was closed and the rocket was moved to the launch pad and erected ready for the launch.
TopSat is a technology demonstrator to show how a relatively small micro-satellite can still deliver responsive, high-resolution imagery of sufficient quality that it can be used for military or commercial purposes over a six month demonstration period. Despite weighting only 120kg, the TopSat can still deliver 2.5metre resolution panchromatic high resolution imagery direct to mobile or fixed ground stations in real time. Three TopSat satellites could provide daily re-visits to any point on the globe.
TopSat has been funded by the British National Space Centre (BNSC), Microsatellite Applications in Collaboration (MOSAIC) and the UK Ministry of Defence. The satellite was then developed by a consortium lead by QineriQ who provided the on-board payload control, data handling and downlinking subsystems and acted as the Mission Prime. Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) provided the platform, the Rutherford Appleton laboratory (RAL) provided the camera and Infoterra are responsible for data exploitation.
The cost of owning and operating reconnaissance satellites has always resulted in the UK relying on the US for satellite imagery. Thanks to the close working relationship established between the countries over many years, the US can usually be relied upon to deliver to the UK authorities an updated photo of a particular location in a fairly short timescale at a set price. However, in times of conflict the US will understandably divert their reconnaissance satellites to support US forces as required and the UK’s requirements have sometimes slipped to the bottom of the pile. Owning and operating a constellation of TopSat satellites would give the UK a new and very useful capability, but whether the crippled UK defence budget will ever stretch to paying for such a system remains very debateable. Data exploitation to the civil sector is probably the key to the programme being funded successfully beyond the 6 month demonstration phase. However, there are already a number of commercial companies, such as Space Imaging , DigitalGlobe and Orbimage in the US and Spot Image in France who can already provide imaging from 2.5 to 0.61 metre, so breaking into this already established market will not be easy.