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Shoebox-sized satellites built in the UK to be launched this month © ESA

Shoebox-sized satellites built in the UK to be launched this month

Published: 11th September, 2020 at 11:40
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The nanosatellites have on-board technology that can predict the locations of boats and track their whereabouts.

Two nanosatellites built in the UK will launch later this month, joining a fleet of more than 100 objects in low Earth orbit that predict global trade movements.


The nanosatellites are two of four made by Spire Global UK and backed by more than £6 million of government investment, and will take off on the Russian Soyuz launcher on 24 September. The other two will be aboard an Indian PSLV launcher, due for launch on 1 November.

The nanosatellites have on-board intelligent machine-learning algorithms that can predict the locations of boats, track their whereabouts and their estimated arrival times at ports. This allows port businesses and authorities to manage busy docks safely.

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Staff design and build all the sub-systems, and integrate and test the whole spacecraft at the company’s Glasgow headquarters.

Despite only being the size of a shoebox, the nanosatellites can do almost everything a conventional satellite does.

Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said: “Nanosatellites weigh less than a piece of cabin luggage, but are enormously powerful in what they can do.

“These four Spire satellites are aimed at making trade hyper-accurate, with technology that makes business more cost effective and efficient.

“Scotland’s space sector is booming. Our membership of ESA [the European Space Agency] is benefiting companies across the UK, and we are committed to supporting the space economy in every region.”

Spire Global UK is a satellite-powered data company that provides predictive analysis of global shipping, aviation and weather forecasting.


The services have been developed under a European Space Agency Pioneer programme, which is a partnership project co-funded by the UK Space Agency.

Reader Q&A: What altitude must satellites reach to stay permanently in orbit?

Asked by: Ludo Webb, Manorhamilton

Getting satellites into orbit is hard enough - they need to be hurled into space with enough energy to reach around 26,000km/h. But staying in orbit means avoiding losing energy to the Earth's atmospheric drag. While the official threshold of space is 100km above the Earth, the effects of the atmosphere can be detected much higher.

Even Hubble, which orbits at almost 600km, could be brought down by the creeping effect of drag. Only satellites in orbits several tens of thousands of kilometres above the Earth can be regarded as effectively permanent, though even they are not totally immune to atmospheric drag.

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Sara RigbyOnline staff writer, BBC Science Focus

Sara is the online staff writer at BBC Science Focus. She has an MPhys in mathematical physics and loves all things space, dinosaurs and dogs.


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