BAE Systems will launch its first satellite cluster into low Earth orbit (LEO) in 2024 and says it will have technology that allows its craft to process data in space and provide intelligence to the British military in near real time .

BAE will launch its LEO satellites in 2024 (photo: Dima Zel/Shutterstock)

Known as Azalea, the group of satellites will use an array of sensors to collect visual, radar and radio frequency (RF) data that will be analyzed by on-board machine learning systems on end processors. BAE says the launch will “enhance the UK’s ability to understand the threats and dangers in, from and through space”.

The company says the satellites can be reconfigured in orbit as new features are required and become available, something it says will extend the spacecraft’s life cycle.

BAE system satellites will process data in space

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

The four-instrument Azalea cluster will include SAR technology that provides high-resolution images of the Earth’s surface regardless of weather and weather conditions. This constant monitoring makes it easier to detect immediate 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 wildfires, BAE says.

Azalea will also be able to combine and analyze the data it collects in space, rather than relaying information back to Earth for processing, as is often the case with traditional satellites. That can take hours, but 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 pieces of digital intelligence where needed. We understand how important space-based intelligence is to any domain, whether it’s informing a strategic command, alerting a warship in the area, 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 capabilities.

The company says the program supports The UK Government’s Defense Space Strategypublished earlier this year, which identified Earth observation as a priority area to 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 scramble to launch ships in what is a largely unregulated space to take advantage of expected demand for satellite communications.

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

Space is an increasingly important industry for the UK and the first satellite from British soil will be launched this year from Cornwall Spaceport.

BAE’s satellite plans are a further boost to the UK’s ambitions in the sector and speaking to Technical monitor earlier this year, James Geech, professor of astrophysics and Royal Society University Research Fellow at the University of Hertfordshire, said having an in-house launch capacity would likely generate more interest.

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

BAE Systems joins the space race with Azalea satellite cluster

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