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September 8, 2022updated 12 Sep 2022 4:42am

BAE Systems joins the space race with Azalea satellite cluster

The defence company is launching its first craft into low Earth orbit in 2024, and says it could aid the UK's defence capabilities.

By Matthew Gooding

BAE Systems will launch its first satellite cluster into low Earth orbit (LEO) in 2024, and says it will feature technology which enables its craft to process data in space and provide intelligence to the UK military in near real time.

BAE will launch its LEO satellites in 2024. (Photo by Dima Zel/Shutterstock)

Known as Azalea, the group of satellites will use a range of sensors to collect visual, radar and radio frequency (RF) data, which will be analysed by onboard machine-learning systems on edge processors. BAE says the launch will “boost the UK’s ability to understand the threats and hazards in, from and through space”.

The company says the satellites can be reconfigured in orbit as new functions are required and become available, something it says will expand the lifecycle of the craft.

BAE systems satellites will process data in space

BAE, Britain’s biggest defence contract, acquired the ability to launch satellites through its purchase of In-Space Missions last year.

The four-craft Azalea cluster will feature SAR technology, which provides high-resolution imagery of the Earth’s surface, regardless of time or weather conditions. This persistent monitoring makes it easier to detect instant physical changes, such as the movement of hostile ships or aircraft or the location of people at risk during natural disasters, such as floods and forest fires, BAE says.

Azalea will also be able to combine and analyse the data it collects in space, rather than transferring information back to Earth for processing, as is often the case with traditional satellites. This can take hours, whereas BAE says its system will be able to identify activities of interest and directly communicate with users on the ground within minutes.

Dave Armstrong, group managing Director of BAE Systems’ digital intelligence business said: “The Azalea satellite cluster will process data in space to provide swathes of digital intelligence wherever it’s needed. We understand how important space-based intelligence is to every domain, whether that’s informing strategic command, alerting an in-area warship, or providing real-time intelligence to forces on the ground. The launch of Azalea in 2024 will be a major step forward for the UK’s sovereign space capability.”

The company says the programme supports the UK Government’s defence space strategy, published earlier this year, which named Earth observation as a priority area to help protect and defend UK interests.

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The UK’s growing space ambitions

BAE joins a LEO satellite market that is becoming crowded, as companies jostle to launch craft into what is a largely unregulated space to take advantage of anticipated demand for satellite communications.

Elon Musk’s Starlink already has 2,500 satellites in LEO, and Amazon has plans for a 3,000-craft network. The UK government-backed OneWeb, which recently agreed a merger with Eutelsat, has more than 400 satellites in orbit and plans to complete its constellation of 648 craft within the next 12 months.

Space is an increasingly important industry for the UK, and the first satellite launch from British soil is set to take place this year from Spaceport Cornwall.

BAE’s satellite plans are a further boost to the UK’s ambitions in the sector, and speaking to Tech Monitor earlier this year, James Geach, professor of astrophysics and a Royal Society University research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire, said having domestic launch capacity is likely to spark more interest.

“The ability to access space from UK soil is symbolic of our aspirations of becoming a true space-faring nation,” Professor Geach said. “Having our own spaceports to launch satellites not only mitigates the need to transport them around the world for launch in, say, Cape Canaveral, but contributes to our overall space industry here at home, creating jobs, accelerating innovation and inspiring the scientists and engineers of tomorrow.”

Read more: Data centres in space could boost satellite computing power

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