Science & Environment

UK satellite's view of 'Blue Planet' Earth

Out of the darkness comes a stunning swathe of blue.

This video of Planet Earth was acquired by TechDemoSat-1 (TDS-1) just moments after being released by its launch rocket high above the Pacific.

It is thought to be the first such movie ever captured by a wholly British-built spacecraft.

TechDemoSat - funded part by government and part by manufacturer Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) - is a testbed for spacecraft systems.

The idea is that it proves technologies so that they can then be sold to other companies and space agencies around the world for their missions.

The low-cost camera that took this video incorporates all "off the shelf" components.

SSTL envisages it being used on future spacecraft to monitor any systems on a satellite that move, including deployable structures such as solar panels.

Global view

In this particular application, the lens is trained on the satellite's antenna pointing mechanism.

At the end of TechDemoSat's life, the 157kg platform will put out a large "drag sail" to help speed its return to Earth, ensuring it is not left littering the space environment.

Engineers hope to be able to see the edge of this sail structure in the field of view, also.

SSTL matched the public funds put into TDS-1

"In the future, we see such cameras becoming a standard on spacecraft so that you can see precisely what's happening," explained Luis Gomes, director of Earth Observation and Science at SSTL.

TDS-1 was launched on a Russian Soyuz-2 rocket from Baikonur in Kazakhstan on 8 July.

The video begins in darkness about 30 seconds after the platform has come off the rocket's Fregat upper-stage.

The satellite is tumbling at this stage. Controllers must work over the following hours to put TDS-1 in a stable, spinning configuration.

First into view is the Sun - a white flare with a black dot at the centre where the image is saturated by the intensity of the light. Then comes the Earth - clouds hovering above the ocean, south of French Polynesia.

Tech risk

Watch for the gold-coloured object that moves from left to right roughly two-thirds of the way through the sequence.

This is the Fregat stage at a distance of about 60m. Very quickly, it is followed by a white dot, which is very likely one of the other six satellites launched on the same flight.

Public funding for TDS-1 - about £7m - came mostly from the government's Technology Strategy Board. SSTL then matched the finance.

Ministers view satellites as one of the "eight great technologies" that can help re-balance the British economy.

The government is also putting money into another small satellite to be built by SSTL called NovaSAR.

This will be a radar spacecraft, which will be able to view the Earth through all weathers. Surrey hopes to expand its export business with this new platform.

Key elements of the radar instrument are being de-risked by being tested on TDS-1.

"The altimeter on TDS-1 uses the same 'front end' and part of the antenna that will be used on NovaSar. It uses the same amplifier technology, the same receiver technology. We'll exercise them to get the heritage and confidence that goes with that," said Mr Gomes.

Artist's impression of NovaSAR: TDS-1 will give SSTL and its customers confidence in future applications

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

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