The NovaSar-1 is a satellite recently launched into space that can take pictures of the surface of the Earth in any weather. Whilst this may not sound exciting, it has revolutionary potential in the fighting of pirates, tracking missing persons and aiding global security. The satellite is an odd shape, having been likened to a cheese grater.
Created by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, NovaSar-1 is a small Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) designed to run low-cost missions. Part-funded by the UK government, the project is the first SAR to be manufactured entirely in the UK. Launched into a 580-km sun-synchronous orbit, the project was undertaken in collaboration with the Indian Space Research Organisation.
A constellation of three NovaSar satellites could image any point on the globe at any time, regardless of weather. This will be put in place not by one government or organisation, but co-owned, operated and utilised by three different entities. The first pictures taken by the satellite were only released in November 2018, which captured an area of 20km by 87km. Later generations may capture detailed images, with the ability to detect items on the ground even as small as a metre across.
In order to more effectively track ships at sea, the SAR comes equipped with a dedicated marine mode that has a range of 400 km. This allows it to track anything in that area, while also providing direct radar ship detection information alongside ship tracking data. It also comes equipped with a receiver that can pick up Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals.
Under international law, ships over 300 tonnes or carrying passengers are required to constantly broadcast these signals that signify identity, course, and speed. Those that don’t transmit AIS signals are often involved in smuggling, piracy or other clandestine activities, but currently there are few ways to consistently monitor large stretches of otherwise empty oceans. If a boat appears in the SAR’s range without broadcasting a signal, it can immediately be reported to the authorities.
The NovaSar can also be used to monitor floods, fires and other natural disasters, forest monitoring, land assessment and crop monitoring. This is a fantastic example of how technology often considered only useful for government or space agencies can positively impact the lives of everyday people.
An expensive piece of equipment, the UK Space Agency has invested £21 million into the project in order to gain access to valuable data, as well as to generate jobs in the UK aerospace industry. This new satellite represents a shift in the manufacture of such devices, incorporating low-cost miniaturised components which makes the entire project cheaper, in this case by around 20%.
As technology improves and becomes cheaper, we may soon see more launches of smaller satellites that fulfil multiple roles across different sectors. NovaSar-1 is the first generation of satellites that will illuminate more of the world whilst taking up less space in our atmosphere.