A real shape-shifting transformer is being built for space

Ready for launch in 2018

European Space Agency engineers have been given the green light to begin development of a new type of satellite that can be reconfigured in orbit for any task.

In normal satellites, mission parameters like how data is transmitted and coverage pattern are fixed due to the use of pre-shaped mechanical antennas. But the new design, named 'Quantum', will have the flexibility to adapt to new tasks once aloft.

Part of the ability to do that is thanks to the use of advanced phased-array antennas that can change their shape - allowing them to adjust coverage, frequency band or even power use. That means if a satellite fails, Quantum could slip into its shoes temporarily. It could also respond to attempts to jam its signal.

Quantum Leap

It doesn't yet have a primary mission. "We are talking to governments, we're talking to maritime companies, we're talking to data operators - and we will focus Quantum on those users where we feel the eagerness is greatest," Michel de Rosen - the chairman and CEO of Eutelsat, who helped design the satellite, told BBC News.

But it's already confirmed that the satellite will be built in the UK - prepared by Airbus at its Portsmouth factory and then integrated with its chassis at Surrey Satellite Technology Limited in Guildford. If all goes well, it should be ready for launch in 2018.