Cambridge space startup has ignition and is set for lift-off

10 Apr, 2024
Tony Quested
SuperSharp Space Systems, a University of Cambridge spinout, has secured more than £2 million in projects to develop innovative space telescopes designed to capture ultra-high resolution images of earth’s surface.
Courtesy – SuperSharp Space Systems

With the ability to resolve individual buildings and the wide field of view to capture entire cities in a single pass, SuperSharp’s thermal infrared (TIR) satellite payloads rewrite the economics of earth-observation imagery.

The technology can unlock several climate change-mitigating applications, moving them from speculative to real-world deployment. These include detecting heat stress in agriculture and monitoring urban heat loss at the individual building level.

The projects secured by SuperSharp include development programmes with the UK Space Agency, the European Space Agency, Innovate UK, and other influential players in the space industry.

Together they represent a massive vote of confidence in the young startup’s earth-imaging technology, marking SuperSharp’s arrival as a significant industry mover, and once more proving the UK’s leadership in the space industries.

The company’s unique technology allows it to fit a large telescope in a small satellite, making low-cost, high-resolution, frequent imaging possible. With 4x greater resolution per unit cost than the current state-of-the-art imaging, SuperSharp opens new possibilities for earth imagery.

Working from its Cambridge base the company has already begun developing these space telescopes ahead of in-orbit launches, beginning in 2026.SuperSharp intends to move climate change applications from speculative to real world.

There has long been an ambition to use TIR imagery in sustainability applications. This includes in urban energy monitoring, identifying where roof insulation is missing, and early detection of heat stress in crops, to direct efficient resource use and boost yields.

The problem has been that today’s space imaging technology cannot provide detailed thermal images at the frequency that’s required. Some large, expensive satellites in low-earth orbit can capture high-resolution images infrequently, while small, low-cost satellites capture frequent but low-resolution images.

While space-derived data has been used to assess the thermal efficiency of large buildings, this has not translated to smaller buildings. A new approach is needed.

By designing smaller payloads that unfold to become large telescopes, SuperSharp can match the current state-of-the-art for imaging resolution, while at the same time maximising the field of view: scanning an area that can cover whole cities. The result is much greater resolution per unit cost, which in turn enables new climate-change mitigation applications.

Existing buildings are thought to represent at least one quarter of global energy-related carbon emissions. High energy efficiency in new homes and retrofitted to existing homes provides an opportunity to make progress towards climate targets.

With a detailed understanding of thermal performance at the level of individual homes, monitoring heat loss could become the ‘killer app’ for thermal satellite imagery.

Data could be integrated into building management systems, local authorities could use this data to understand which properties require proper insulation, individual property owners could use it to reduce their electricity consumption, and at a macro level, governments could deploy the data both to assess the impact of their own initiatives while verifying the CO2 emission data presented by other countries.

SuperSharp recently won an 18-month project within ESA’s ‘InCubed-2’ programme, which was funded by the UK Space Agency and benefits from ESA’s in-house technical expertise.

This project will see SuperSharp develop a large aperture, TIR imaging payload with extreme-telephoto, wide-field optics, and a multi-sensor array. By matching the current state-of-the-art in thermal image resolution, and combining that with a much larger field of view, the telescope captures what amounts to a panoramic view, enabling detailed thermal imaging covering entire cities.

Marco Gomez-Jenkins, CEO of SuperSharp, said: “The last 12 months have been transformative for SuperSharp. The innovative solutions that we’re developing will enable ultra-high resolution thermal mapping from space to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges, from decarbonisation of cities to global security.

“Having secured several new projects with world-leading space agencies and others we’re now hard at work developing multiple space telescopes, as we move towards an in-orbit demonstration beginning in 2026.”

Harshbir Sangha, Missions and Capabilities Delivery Director at the UK Space Agency, added: “SuperSharp’s thermal imaging technology could help provide a clearer picture of heat patterns in cities, informing important decisions about the steps needed to reduce our impact on environmental temperatures.

“This work is a brilliant example of how investment in space technology can help us improve life on earth and mitigate climate challenges.”

SuperSharp is a SATLANTIS company. In May 2023 the two companies announced that SATLANTIS had acquired a controlling interest in SuperSharp. The agreement ensured that SuperSharp has the financial and industrial resources required to reach the first in-orbit demonstration.

This deal created a global leader in high-resolution electro-optical payloads for small satellites, with a presence in Spain, France, the United States through SATLANTIS LLC, and now the UK.

SATLANTIS designs and manufactures earth & Universe Observation payloads for Small Satellites, core of a unique set of electro-optical technologies. The company provides user-driven end-to-end small satellite solutions for diverse applications, including greenhouse gas detection, defence and intelligence, land monitoring, and much more.