As featured in The Telegraph:
By Sarah Knapton, SCIENCE EDITOR 29 October 2022 • 2:19pm
The device started life in a garage in Reading and will scan Earth’s waters for people smugglers
A satellite which started life in a garage in Reading will soon be launched from Britain to help stop people smugglers illegally trafficking migrants, and other unlawful sea activity.
The Amber-1 satellite, built by British start-up Horizon Technologies, is part of the first payload to travel on Virgin Orbit’s horizontal launch flight from Cornwall, which is due for lift-off next month.
It works by hunting for satellite phone and radar signals coming from boats that have switched-off their automatic identification systems (AIS) transponders off to avoid detection.
Illegal vessels often need to contact their destination to organise the transferral of whatever cargo they are carrying, and so give themselves away while making clandestine ship-to-shore calls.
John Beckner, the CEO Of Horizon had the idea while in South Africa during the Somali pirate crisis, where he realised criminals were communicating via satellite telephones, which could be tracked.
Satellite can make regular sweeps over Earth’s waters
He discovered a company in Tewkesbury that was already making off-the-shelf detection devices for the police and set about turning one into an airborne system with partner Bash Ahmed, at Mr Ahmed’s home garage in Reading.
“In Bash’s garage we took this original device apart and put it back together as something that could fly and be used in an aeroplane, and we sold that all over the world, but then we thought it could work in space,” said Mr Beckner.
“For people moving long distances, they use sat phones to communicate, both the refugees themselves and their smuggler bosses.”
The system, called “FlyingFish”, is already used by law enforcement agencies across the world but is mounted in aircraft, which restricts its range.
Now it is being sent into space, where it can make regular sweeps over Earth’s waters looking for the tell-tale signals of illegal activity and feeding the information back to the UK Joint Maritime Security Centre and the Royal Navy.
As well as stopping people-smuggling, the system can be used to spot piracy and terrorism and identify ships such as Russian tankers which illegally traffic fuel to fund the war in Ukraine.
The satellite could also help stop illegal fishing. Mr Beckner added: “Illegal fishing often happens when these boats turn off their AIS transponders to go where they’re not supposed to. They turn them back on when they are out of UK or another country’s waters and legal again.
“Amber is looking for signals like sat phones, datalinks, and the vessels’ radars. There is not much one can do if they go completely dark, but often some of these emitters are still on; radars especially since they don’t want to run into anything.
“We’re hoping that it will be useful for anyone, from the Royal Navy to the coastguard in the Bahamas.”
The technology is housed in a CubeSat satellite designed by AAC Clyde Space in Glasgow and is being supported by the government through Innovate UK and the Satellite Applications Catapult.
First ever satellite launch from Britain
The “Start Me Up” mission will mark the first time in history that a satellite launch has been conducted from British soil.
Nusrat Ghani, Science Minister, added: “As we move ever closer to the first satellite launch from UK soil, it’s excellent to see the progress being made by Virgin Orbit, Spaceport Cornwall and those across government in delivering this historic mission, the first of its kind in Europe.”
Unlike usual horizontal launches, the satellites take off in a rocket attached to a former Virgin Atlantic 747passenger plane – dubbed “Cosmic Girl”. At around 35,000ft the rocket detaches and launches into space.
Cosmic Girl arrived at Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay earlier this month for loading.
If the first launch is successful, Horizon Technologies wants to send up a further 23 satellites which would give worldwide real-time coverage.
Matt Archer, director of commercial spaceflight at the UK Space Agency, said: “We are now a matter of weeks away from launch and, while the excitement is building, teams on the ground continue to work hard on the preparations.”
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Horizon Technologies. Others Detect, We Define.
is a Global Leader in innovative SIGINT and Space-Based Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) Intelligence Solutions.
Horizon Aerospace Technologies
is a world leader in airborne Sat Phone monitoring systems for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) applications, equipping governments worldwide by enhancing their SIGINT capabilities. We are the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) for the FlyingFish™ and BlackFish™ SIGINT systems which are in operation on numerous platforms worldwide. We participate daily in ISR and SAR missions via NATO and FRONTEX in Europe and are heavily involved in international operations around the globe.
Horizon Space Technologies
is the prime contractor for the UK Government’s Amber™ program. The Amber™ Program will consist of Amber™ CubeSats in multiple orbital planes providing global Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) data to the UK JMSC (led by Royal Navy).
Read more: Horizon Technologies News
Learn more about Virgin Orbit: VirginOrbit.com