Automated factory to build smallsats


Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.

The competition heats up: While this story focuses on the hiring of the former head of Stratolaunch by smallsat company York Space Systems, the real lead is how York is building an automated factory on a Denver college campus that will churn out smallsats.

Last week, York announced that it will partner with Metropolitan State University to open an automated manufacturing facility on the school’s Denver campus this year. The startup’s flagship product is the “S-Class” satellite platform, designed to carry payload masses up to 85 kilograms. Building 200 satellites per year would put the company at about a third the production rate of OneWeb Satellites, the ambitious joint venture of OneWeb and Airbus seeking to build three satellites a day for OneWeb’s planned constellation low-Earth-orbit communications satellites.

York has 33 satellite platforms requested through letters of intent and other agreements, about half of which are firm commitments to buy satellites once available, Dirk Wallinger, chief executive of the 10-person startup founded in early 2015, told SpaceNews.

York’s approach to satellite manufacturing is to have standardized spacecraft models essentially pre-built for prospective customers, who can then outfit their satellites as desired, Wallinger said.

For more than a half century, satellites have been hand-made, each unique and crafted by teams of engineers in an expensive and slow process. That is finally changing.

I should add that this hiring of Stratolaunch’s former president is another indication that Stratolaunch might be in trouble.

5 comments

  • Edward

    Although this would not be the first mass production of satellites, Iridium and Globalstar were mass produced, I do believe this will be the first automated manufacturing of satellites.

    Robert’s comment about satellites being “unique and crafted by teams of engineers in an expensive and slow process” is largely true. Outside of the large number of identical Iridium and Globalstar satellites, the manufacture of identical satellites has generally been for quantities of fewer than a dozen. Not every satellite has been completely unique.

    NOAA’s GOES satellites, the DoD’s recent MUOS satellites, and some other spy, weather, or communication satellites would be identical and built in “batches,” but they would be completed and launched months or even years apart. Part of this may have been due to the lack of available launch services, and part of it may have been due to the lack of motivation to seriously speed up the manufacture process.

    Part of the difficulty in a rapid manufacture process was the environmental testing of the satellites. A thermal vacuum test — to verify the satellite works properly in the vacuum of space with one side pointed toward the hot Sun and the other five sides radiating into cold space — could take a couple of months, limiting the pace at which satellites could be completed.

    Iridium got around this limited pace by forgoing the environmental testing after the first five satellites.

    As for handmade and crafted, I have to completely agree. When I first started designing and building instruments for NASA satellites, my mentor called us craftsmen. (I wrote this entire comment, just to say that one sentence. Ironically, there was a time when my English teachers thought I didn’t write long enough essays.) We couldn’t just “file to fit and paint to match” — a lot of paper work was required if something didn’t fit right — but we did perform a lot of unique detailing to overcome the idiosyncrasies of each instrument or electronics box. We didn’t make enough of each design for them to become assembly line items, but we incorporated fixes/corrections into unlaunched units. Even today, it is still very much a handcrafted process. York’s payloads and the incorporation of those payloads may remain handcrafted, depending upon what York can do to automate the individuality of each payload.

    One similarity to what York is doing is that many satellites start with a standardized core or chassis, which is what York’s “S-Class” platform is about. The core/platform comes with standard control, power, thrusters, momentum wheels (reaction wheels), fuel and oxidizer tanks, etc., and it is mostly the payload that is the customized, unique, one-off (or several of a kind) parts, antennas, and panels that are attached to the core. A difference is that every company that I know of still handcrafts each standard core.

    Occasionally, a standard core will require a one-time-only modification to accommodate a payload. One satellite that I performed a shake test on developed a crack, due to the core’s construction crew forgetting to modify the core for the heavier payload, but that problem was fixed — more expensively than had they built the core correctly the first time. Craftsmanship does not assure perfection.

  • Orion314

    I post this tangentially , as there is no way I know of how to post general questions.
    I have yet to see thoughts on the possible hazards of having a million god-damn mini satellites in orbit , no matter if they are cell phone size, The sats may be tiny , but the means to get them there still has has a shit full of litter. Since the known progress of cleaning up any kind of debris in desirable orbits is ZERO, this gold rush of launching cheap satellites pell mell, seems insane. After all, chain reactions led us to the atom bomb. so very helpful.

  • Edward

    Orion314,
    The Kessler syndrome is a real problem, and is somewhat described in the movie “Gravity.” The space community is concerned and working toward solutions to the problem.

    The unenforced-but-often-observed general rule for LEO satellites is that they either deorbit at End Of Life or that they be in orbits that naturally decay in 25 years. This limits the duration of their hazardous time on orbit, and should limit the time of most of any debris that may form due to any collision that happens anyway.

    GEO satellites are boosted into a slightly higher orbit (~100 km) at EOL so that they avoid colliding with active satellites.

    The large constellations are mostly or entirely slated for LEO. There are other orbits that are not so low, so those satellites either must deorbit themselves or they will turn into space junk and hazards to navigation for the others.

    The Irridium satellites were programmed to deorbit if they did not receive communications from controllers, and this almost happened about a month after the company’s bankruptcy, a couple of decades ago, but they were rescued when it was observed that they were preparing to deorbit.

    One of the great advantages of having all the small launchers putting up the small satellites is that these small satellites do not have to hitchhike on rockets destined for higher orbits, so the next several thousand small satellites can easily and reasonably be placed in 25 year orbits. Some satellites will have much shorter lifespans, as their technologies will become quickly obsolete, so they can be placed into even shorter-lived orbits.

    Most manned orbits and space stations could easily and reasonably be placed higher than these LEO “swarm orbits” (if I can coin a phrase).

    The real problem and potential limiting factor that I see with huge constellations and boatloads of smallsats is the need for radio frequencies for them, another scarce resource.

  • Orion314

    Edward, superb input , much appreciated. My chief fear , [with Chernobyl and Fukushima in the back of my mind]
    is how SO very critical , yet vulnerable, earth orbit really is. Imagine, if PRNK supreme leader gets a hankering to launch a beautiful fireworks into heaven to demonstrate his divine godhood. BANG!!!!!!! In no time at all, we are all back a thousand years. No way to prevent this I can see

  • Edward

    Orion314,

    There are a few possible countermeasures to ballistic missiles.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missile_Defense_Agency#Boost_phase_defense

    Notice that two of the countermeasures at the boost phase were cancelled under Obama. Whose side is he on?

    Fortunately, there remain several other defenses for the US, Japan, and other countries. Who knows, a constellation of small satellites may one day be used to monitor ICBM launches, similar to what SBIRS does today, but being in LEO rather than GEO, it may save 1/4 second off the warning time delay.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *