Science & Technology

The Tiny Spacecraft Revolution

Professor Craig Underwood
Monday, 27 September 2021 - 6:30pm



The University of Surrey and its spin-out company, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. are world leaders in the design, construction and operation of “micro-satellites”.  Whilst the first satellites were necessarily small, due to the limitations of the then available launch vehicles, satellites quickly grew to the large and expensive vehicles we see today.  In the late 1970’s, a student at the University of Surrey, and keen amateur radio enthusiast, (now Prof. Sir) Martin Sweeting, realised that with the advent of the microprocessor, satellites could be built that were much smaller and cheaper than hitherto, and yet have capabilities that could match or even exceed those of the traditional large satellites – and so began the UoSAT (University of Surrey Satellite) programme.  Initially, the satellites produced were part of the amateur radio satellite service, and also carried an OSCAR (Orbiting Satellite Carrying Amateur Radio) designation.  Their purpose was to support science and engineering research (for example developing new digital communications technology) and to support STEM education by enabling schools and colleges to easily pick up their signals.  This is where the speaker got involved – initially as a teacher, using the satellites in class, and then, as a physicist/ computer scientist, moving to Surrey to develop the ground-station facilities, and to help design of the satellites to survive the harsh environment of space.

Recent technological advances have made it possible to construct even smaller satellites, at an order of magnitude less cost.  These “nano-satellites” open up many new possibilities for space exploration.  In 2000, Surrey launched its first 6.5 kg nano-satellite: “SNAP-1”, which demonstrated remote inspection and autonomous orbital manoeuvring using advanced miniaturised technologies.  Since then, the advent of the international “CubeSat” standard, has enabled whole new classes of space mission to be undertaken by Universities, commercial enterprises and Space Agencies, such as NASA.  Soon, such spacecraft will be exploring the Moon and solar system, beyond.  This lecture will present the state of the art in highly miniaturised spacecraft and discuss the Surrey’s pioneering role in these developments, including its CubeSat missions: STRaND-1, AlSat-1N, InflateSail, RemoveDebris, AAReST and LUCE VMMO. 


About the speaker

Prof. Craig Underwood is Emeritus Professor of Spacecraft Engineering at the Surrey Space Centre, University of Surrey.  He has over 35 years’ experience in space systems engineering and has worked on numerous small satellite missions, specialising in sensors and instrumentation for radiation detection, optical and radar remote sensing.  Craig graduated from the University of York in 1982 with a B.Sc. in Physics with Computer Science.  He gained his PhD from the University of Surrey in 1996 with his work on the effects on the ionising radiation on space electronics.  Craig is author or co-author of some 200 scientific papers and still teaches modules on the Spacecraft Engineering degrees at the University of Surrey in his retirement.

Event image: detail of 'Moon crater close-up' by NASA on Unsplash



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