Professor Sir Martin Sweeting delivers the inaugural EPS Distinguished Lecture

Posted on Tuesday 25th March 2014


On Wednesday 5th March Professor Sir Martin Sweeting, Director of the Surrey Space Centre, delivered the first EPS Distinguished Lecture. The event featured a roundtable discussion hosted by Professor Andy Schofield, Head of School Physics & Astronomy, where 12 students from across the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences had the opportunity to ask questions to Sir Martin on topics relating to his research and his career. The lecture itself detailed the history of Keeping Satellites in Space and Surrey Space Centre’s effective synergy of academic research and commercial exploitation. The evening closed with an intimate dinner with senior academics, students and alumni continuing the discussion. Physics students Ceri Bradshaw, Rob Brennan-Craddock and Graham Kirkby summarise the event.


The Roundtable Discussion

Graham Kirkby, 1st year PhD student researching Antenna and Satellite Engineering in the Poynting Institute, School of Electronic, Electrical & Computer Engineering

Just before he gave the first Distinguished Lecture, Professor Sir Martin Sweeting kindly agreed to participate in a roundtable discussion. This provided a unique opportunity for student questions to probe Sir Martin’s perspective of the space industry. The table was comprised of twelve students from a wide range of backgrounds, from first year undergraduates through to PhD students, with an even wider range of questions. I myself am a first year PhD student working on a nano-satellite project in the School of Electronic, Electrical & Computer Engineering and was invited to the roundtable through my participation with the University of Birmingham Astronomical Society. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the creative questions and Sir Martin’s answers and getting to ask one of my own.

There was a very wide range of questions spanning the reaches of the space industry. Questions ranged from the history of Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), including Sir Martin’s favourite SSTL satellite, through to the possibilities for future large space based science projects such as the gravitational wave experiment LISA. The public perception of the proposed Mars One Mission was also discussed alongside more down to Earth things like Sir Martin’s tips on succeeding with a career in the space industry. So that you can listen yourself a full recording of the roundtable discussion will be available soon.

Space has always inspired us throughout human history, just looking up and seeing the stars and asking the question: what’s out there? As the commercial development of space, including the small satellites of SSTL, continues to grow and develop not only will we be able to explore further with manned missions and telescopes but exploit the benefits that this industry brings on the ground. These range from merely the help provided by GPS right through to critical observations of areas affected by natural disasters. SSTL aims to make smaller satellites without reducing functionality, therefore cutting costs and bringing these benefits to a wider audience. The passion of the students and Sir Martin in this session was very evident and hopefully shows the promise that we can overcome the challenges space still poses and continue this trend.


The Lecture

Rob Brennan-Craddock, 4th year MSci Physics student

After a thought-provoking round-table discussion, students, staff and alumni filled a lecture theatre to hear Sir Martin's story of success in his own words. Beginning with an introduction into the current position of SSTL within the aerospace industry, it became clear that this was a company with a huge amount of respect, hard-earned over a 31 year history.

SSTL arose from a team of highly skilled aerospace researchers at the University of Surrey in the 1970s, when the prospects of space exploration lay predominately with the superpowers of the time. Sir Martin explained how his team of dedicated engineers designed a new generation of micro satellites, exploiting easily-available technology to build satellites cheaper and lighter than ever before. After a successful launch of SSTL's first satellite (UoSAT-1), Sir Martin recalled memories of a request from NASA to prepare a follow-up satellite to be launched within 6 months, and the countless days (and nights!) of hard work that entailed.

From there, Sir Martin described the development of SSTL into a fully-fledged satellite company, consistently reducing the weight of spacecraft, whilst simultaneously increasing their capabilities. By incorporating novel Earth observation technologies, SSTL's construction of the Disaster Monitoring Constellation was clearly a proud memory for the company's chairman, having provided almost instant support for the Indian Ocean Tsunami (2004) and Hurricane Katrina (2005).

The sense of intrigue in the audience was clear as Sir Martin continued to describe the vast range of innovations developed across 41 satellites designed and launched over the years, and their contribution towards the global navigation satellite system, Galileo. The enthusiasm shown throughout the lecture, and when answering a diverse round of questions, was a huge motivation for an aspiring aerospace engineer to become involved in the industry being driven forwards by Surrey Space Technology.


The Dinner

Ceri Bradshaw, Vice-President of the Poynting Physical Society and 3rd year MSci Physics student

As a representative of the Poynting Physical Society, it was my pleasure to attend a dinner with Sir Martin Sweeting, as well as many other notable alumni. It’s not every day you get the opportunity to dine with such influential people and garner advice both personally and for the society.

On a personal level, the pros and cons of doing a PhD were talked about at length – how they aren’t just beneficial within academia, but have a transferable way of working that can be applied to any job. This bellies the assumption that you are putting a lot of your eggs in one basket with a PhD. If you don’t get into academia then there are plenty of avenues – both open and opened – after doing a PhD.

The dinner was fascinating not just because of the company of Sir Martin, but also the company of the array of others, and gave good advice both to me and to the other two students attending. As such, next year we are looking into inviting alumni to attend our annual spring ball to give the same sort of advice to others as I received on the night. Due to our unique life membership, once you are a member of PPS you will always be a member, so to celebrate this we would love to have alumni who have witnessed the progression of PPS join us for this special event.

Thanks must go to Sir Martin for not just taking the time to talk to students at the dinner I attended, but also at the roundtable discussion where the information given by Sir Martin will be made widely accessible, helping many more than the select few who were lucky enough to attend. It was a privilege to be invited to such a special event, and I greatly appreciate the importance the college places on student societies such as PPS.