A pair of advanced British satellites launched yesterday on an Indian rocket, which represent the first wholly British radar satellite project, according to BBC News. In the past, British engineers have used their expertise toward missions for other organizations such as the European Space Agency. The NovaSAR and its companion SI-4, however, are solely a British project, manufactured by Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (SSTL) of Guildford, England.

The NovaSAR can take pictures of the earth’s surface, in any weather conditions and during any time of day or night. It is paired with the SI-4, a high-resolution optical satellite that can distinguish objects as small as 87cm on the planet’s surface in normal light conditions.

The NovaSAR’s radar instrument was designed by Airbus, based in Portsmouth, England. The project uses miniaturized, lower-cost components as part of an effort to take a more affordable approach to radar design.

While applications will include a range of functions from tracking oil spills and floods to crop assessment, one focus is to help detect illegal maritime shipping and fishing.

“It is important to be able to monitor large areas of the ocean – something we don’t do at the moment. We all saw with the Malaysian airline crash in the Indian Ocean the difficulty there was in monitoring that vast area. We can do that kind of thing with radar and NovaSAR is good for that,” Luis Gomes, SSTL’s chief technology officer, told BBC News.

The satellite can detect Automatic Identification System (AIS) radio signals, which large ships must broadcast according to international law. Ships that do not use these signals are often trying to avoid detection due to involvement in smuggling or illegal fishing. NovaSAR will bring these ships to the attention of authorities.

illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing can impact food security in fishing communities, and wreak havoc on ecosystems and food chains, including coral reefs. It can also bring economic harm to legal fishing operations.

When NovaSAR was first conceived of in 2008, its size and affordability was considered a breakthrough. Delays in its development have led it to fall behind other radar systems which have become increasingly miniaturized.

According to Airbus radar expert Martin Cohen, however:

“NovaSAR is still a step change, certainly for Airbus in terms of what you can do for a particular amount of money. But while we’ve been waiting for a launch, we haven’t stood still. We’ve done lots of work on the next generation. NovaSAR is just the first in a family of instruments that will offer different capabilities, such as finer resolutions and other parameters; and we will be putting those capabilities on smaller spacecraft than NovaSAR.”

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