There is growing utilization of miniaturized satellites for military and defense applications. Over the years, the business of space exploration has changed substantially, with private corporations joining governments to create and launch rockets and satellites. Large tech companies are moving towards Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites to meet the demands of consumers in a global communications market. As satellite technology advances, engineers are looking to replace a limited number of high-orbiting geosynchronous satellites with thousands of smaller LEO satellites.
LEO satellites are small (100 – 500 kg) satellites that orbit the earth at a relatively low altitude. A typical LEO satellite will be placed between 200 km and 2000 km above the Earth’s surface. In comparison to existing geosynchronous satellites, they are much smaller and orbit much closer to Earth. This means they’re an excellent communications solution and can provide high-speed internet connection to remote areas, without the latency issues experienced from satellites in higher orbits.
The U.S. military counts on satellites for navigation, communications and intelligence gathering. Defense organizations have been launching communication nanosatellites and microsatellites to provide communication signals to soldiers stationed in remote locations or in dense forests. The military needs more data bandwidth and reliable communications infrastructure for its UAVs, which can be fulfilled using constellations of nano and microsatellites.
Requirements of new manufacturing methods
In the future, thousands of micro and nanosatellites are being planned to be launched into LEO which requires up-gradation of Satellite Manufacturing capabilities. Space Manufacturing includes activities related to the manufacture of satellites and spacecraft, including subsystems, launching vehicles and systems, ground segment systems and equipment manufacturers and scientific and engineering research and consultancy services.
The large volume of satellites required for LEO constellations means that significant value engineering exercises are underway across the space engineering sector. A short lifespan combined with the volume of LEO satellites proposed, will mean a dramatic shift in the design, manufacture, and deployment of satellites. Scientists and process engineers are looking to reduce the cost of manufacturing the satellites, while maintaining the high performance required to withstand the hostile space environment.
In addition to designing lightweight, aerodynamically efficient satellites from low-cost materials, engineers are also tasked with protecting the satellite from its surroundings. LEO satellites are designed to orbit the Earth in a harsh environment; exposed to atomic oxygen, high levels of UV radiation and extreme thermal cycling. There is also a risk of damage from micrometeorites and space debris. Many spacecraft components are made from either Kevlar, aluminium alloys, or titanium. Each of these is lightweight and strong but comes with their own limitations in terms of performance in a harsh space environment. They require additional coatings to protect the integrity of the satellite structure through the high-speed launch process and hostile environmental conditions.
Satellite Manufacturing Facilities
Space technology companies are looking to produce satellites in the same way that the automotive industry manufactures cars. For example, OneWeb have already created a high-speed, high-volume satellite assembly line.
Historically, satellites are custom built, costing tens of millions of dollars to build, and taking more than a year to produce a single one. The OneWeb Satellites facility is the first to employ industrial-scale mass-production techniques for satellites, helping to enable reduced costs and production times that can deliver one satellite per production shift or two a day, while expanding internet connectivity and making space technology far more accessible. The facility’s production capabilities will first support the rapid scaling of the OneWeb network, starting with a constellation of 650 satellites and scaling to 1,980 satellites.
Airbus, one of the world’s leading spacecraft manufacturers, found itself in a rather unfamiliar territory. The company’s portfolio may have included daring missions to distant planets and some of the world’s most sophisticated GEO telecommunication satellites. With OneWeb, however, the firm had to move from years-long production of prototypes or semi-prototypes, to spitting out two satellites a day, while maintaining the highest level of reliability and quality. “In our existing facilities, we would make perhaps ten or twenty satellites per year,” says de Rosnay. “Now we are talking about producing thousands. It’s a complete change of scale in terms of having to be able to produce very fast very large quantities of identical satellites.”
OneWeb Satellites – a joint venture of OneWeb and Airbus – opened a high-volume, high-speed satellite production facility in Merrit Island, Florida, near the Kennedy Space Center. The 105,500 square foot production facility, which has two production lines capable of producing two satellites a day, is helping to revitalize Florida’s Space Coast with 250 new high-tech jobs and 3,000 indirect jobs through the supply chain. The facility’s production capabilities will first support the rapid scaling of the OneWeb network, starting with a constellation of 650 satellites and scaling to 1,980 satellites delivering global connectivity.
“This is a defining moment in the history of OneWeb, and the space industry. With today’s opening, we are one step closer to connecting the unconnected for the benefit of societies all over the world,” said Adrian Steckel, CEO of OneWeb. “As we gear up for more satellite launches at the end of the year, this facility will ensure we can begin delivering global connectivity in some areas as early as next year and globally in 2021.”
There have been many lessons learned for Airbus. The company realized that full automation —as used for example in the manufacturing of cars or planes — is not the right way forward. “We are not using a lot of automation as such,” says de Rosnay. “We have some robots and cobots but we didn’t see the case for the level of automation you could see, for example, in [the] automotive industry. While thousands of satellites might be a lot for the satellite manufacturing, the volume is still relatively small compared to let say cars or mobile phones.” Instead, he says, digital smart tools assist human operators to work more efficiently and make sure that every screw is as tight as needs to be.
“Every piece of equipment has a bar code and the tooling — which is used to fit the equipment, too — has a bar code, and you scan both and the tooling knows what level of torqueing should be applied on every bolt,” says de Rosnay. “Once it’s done, the data is recorded and it’s validated through 3D scanning. All this is really adding value to the assembly of the hardware and removing the risk of anomalies because we have to produce faster but still keep a high level of quality.”
One of the biggest challenges in getting the OneWeb Satellites production line off the ground was setting up the supply chain to be able to meet the volume needed for the manufacturing of the constellation. Similarly to Airbus itself, its suppliers in the past were only required to produce parts for a handful of satellites. As a result, Airbus had to engage with a variety of completely new suppliers frequently with no prior experience with delivering space-grade hardware. “For the supply chain we had a complete collaborative environment,” says de Rosnay. “Our suppliers became partners and we did a lot of collaborative engineering with them. This collaborative approach is changing the way we are working in space.” The ability to use more commercial low-cost parts instead of bespoke parts made in individual units helps drive down cost and reduce lead times, de Rosnay says, adding that Airbus is now implementing lessons learned from the OneWeb Satellites exercise in other areas of its business to achieve better efficiency.
Better cooperation and communication between engineers designing new space systems and manufacturing managers is among the strategies that American space giant Lockheed Martin uses to slash lead times and cost. “It’s about making sure that our engineers create designs that are efficiently producible,” says Lockheed’s spokesman Mark Lewis. “If you don’t have technical people designing in the parameters of the tools that the manufacturing groups use, that creates barriers and speed bumps.”
OHB’s Lindenthal stressed the importance of increased exchange of information between suppliers and system integrators in order to cope with the growing expectations of customers in the most efficient way. The need for cooperation and communication extends to the customers as well, according to Joy. Only by understanding the customers’ needs can the right solutions be found.
Lockheed Martin has begun on a new $350 million facility near Denver that will produce next-generation satellites.The new Gateway Center will feature a state-of-the-art high-bay clean room capable of building a spectrum of satellites from micro to macro. The facility’s paperless, digitally enabled production environment will incorporate reconfigurable production lines and advanced test capability. It will include an expansive thermal vacuum chamber to simulate the harsh environment of space, an anechoic chamber for highly perceptive testing of sensors and communications systems, and an advanced test operations and analysis center. The facility will also be certified to security standards required to support vital national security missions.
“This is our factory of the future — agile, efficient and packed with innovations,” said Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space Systems. “We’ll be able to build satellites that communicate with front-line troops, explore other planets and support unique missions. You could fit the Space Shuttle in the high bay with room to spare. That kind of size and versatility means we’ll be able to maximize economies of scale, and with all of our test chambers under one roof, we can streamline and speed production.”
China’s first smart manufacturing plant for satellites reported in Feb 2021
Testing at China’s first smart manufacturing plant for satellites has begun here, with production scheduled to begin in March. Zou Guangbao, general manager of CASIC Space Engineering Development, says that design and construction of the plant took 429 days. When it reaches full manufacturing capacity, it will be capable of making 240 small satellites a year.
Liu Feng, one of the plant’s project managers, says building a satellite involves dozens of steps, ranging from component installation and satellite assembly to electronic and mechanical tests, and the current production method requires all of them to be carried out manually. “By comparison, our plant uses robots to perform major steps, which means we can improve the average manufacturing efficiency for satellites by more than 40 percent,” says Liu.
Plans previously published by CASIC Space Engineering Development said the initial task of the new plant will be to produce small satellites to realize CASIC’s Hongyun program, which aims to operate a network of more than 150 communications satellites.
The program, begun by CASIC in September 2016, will establish a satellite system to provide broadband internet connectivity to users around the world, especially those in underserved regions. The first Hongyun satellite was launched atop a Long March 11 carrier rocket in December 2018 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwestern China.
CASIC Space Engineering Development is a Wuhan-based subsidiary of State-owned defense giant China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp.
Flexible Satellites with programmable payloads
According to Lindenthal, not all constellations of the future will require hundreds or thousands of satellites. Smaller Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) or LEO constellations consisting of tens of spacecraft might prove a more economically viable solution for many operators. Manufacturing of such systems will thus require a rather different approach compared to that used by Airbus for OneWeb.
One way to meet the requirement to deliver satellites to customers in a shorter period of time would be to manufacture flexible satellites with programmable payloads and keep them in stock for the customers to purchase whenever they need. The approach, while presenting economic risks, could allow operators to launch new satellites within two months from ordering them. “We can produce a fully flexible satellite in terms of the satellite platform and the payload,” says Lindenthal. “Once the customer would know the specifics of the mission, we would just build the software. Software defined payloads could be adapted very quickly.”
According to Lindenthal, providing a satellite with a new payload has taken up to three years. With flexible software-defined payloads, the task could be accomplished within a few months. Moreover, even with the satellite in orbit, operators could reprogram the payload to suit the changing needs at any time. The satellite platform itself would support flexibility, providing the ability to change position and reorient itself once in orbit. “Maybe after three or five years of satellite operation in a certain position for a certain application, you could reconfigure the same satellite, starting a new mission,” says Lindenthal. “You don’t need to launch a new one. You would have a flexible payload and active antennas, which could be reconfigured later in orbit.
Airbus’ Aiden Joy believes that flexible payloads are key for future GEO missions, offering customers the benefit of using an asset for a long period of time and at the same time the ability to change the mission’s specifications. “At the moment the operators are in a decision period about what the optimum solutions for them might be,” says Joy. “In general, once you launched a capability, obviously the longer the life can be, the more cost-effective it is. If you can build in flexibility with things like flexible payloads, you can extend the life and potentially be able to use it for different missions.” Airbus hopes to cut lead times for large GEO satellites from three years to 18 months. The way to achieve that, Joy says, is in greater standardization and modularity of spacecraft. Airbus’ upcoming Eurostar Neo GEO bus has been designed not only to be customizable, but also modular, so that the mission can be scaled up or down based on the requirements.
3D as the key to satellite manufacturing
Further improvements can be achieved with the implementation of new manufacturing techniques including additive manufacturing, digitalization, and the use of big data to optimize design and manufacturing.
3D printing or additive manufacturing is ongoing revolution in manufacturing with its potential to fabricate any complex object and is being utilized from aerospace components to human organs, textiles, metals, buildings and even food. Additive manufacturing, is defined by ASTM International as the process of joining materials together, layer by layer, based on three-dimensional model data.
Advances in 3D has allowed them to create high-performance and lightweight mechanical components from refractory and technical materials. Additive manufacturing is both a cost-efficient method of producing large quantities of aerospace components and producing highly customizable components. This has enabled 3D printing in space and aerospace engineering, where the combination of affordability, versatility, speed, and precision make additive manufacturing a desirable choice. New technologies such as 3D printing have become a key to increasing the satellite production rate, against the background of a quickly changing industry.
Additive manufacturing starts with a digital model, then melts plastic or metal filaments or powders in a large number of superimposed layers to form the virtually finished object. This operation uses a computer-controlled “printing” machine, calling on a 3D digital model in a CAD (computer-aided design) file. Complex single-piece parts can be made using this technique, components that would be impossible to make using conventional manufacturing processes. Depending on the application, 3D printing of these single-piece parts, rather than the assembly of a number of pieces using conventional techniques, offers significant weight and cost savings. “3D printing is particularly suited to the complex, one-of-a-kind, multi-function parts produced in small quantities – especially parts with complex curves, or cavities – which is what today’s satellites need,” says Florence Montredon, Head of Additive Manufacturing at Thales Alenia Space. “It’s a key to increasing satellite performance and flexibility.”
Economic advantages are a further offering of additive manufacturing in comparison to conventional subtractive manufacturing methods. Practically eliminating the requirement for re-tooling or revision of manufacturing procedures for new parts, components can effectively be produced on-demand using a single machine, meaning that economy of scale is achieved much more easily. Weight reductions of an astounding 70% have been evidenced for satellite components created by AM. This is not a trivial matter as the reduction of the mass of satellite components significantly decreases the amount of fuel needed to launch the satellite and to maneuver it upon reaching orbit.
U.S. satellite manufacturer Lockheed Martin is on a mission to slash lead times and cost of satellite manufacturing by 50 percent. One of the company’s key tools for achieving this goal is additive manufacturing, or 3D printing. Whilst the space industry has been a rather slow adopter of the disruptive technology, Lockheed’s additive manufacturing manager Brian Kaplun says that the technology has made some massive strides over the past few years and is now very much in the mainstream.
Lockheed’s first 3D printed part was a bracket used on Nasa’s Juno mission to Jupiter, which launched in 2011. Since then, the company’s catalogue of 3D printed components has expanded massively with the latest achievement being two large titanium domes for high-pressure fuel tanks to be used onboard satellites. At 46 inches (117cm), the two domes are the largest 3D printed structures Lockheed Martin has ever created for space applications. “We are able to additively produce thermal structures, we can now build entire bus structures for smaller satellites in one fell swoop, we can incorporate electronics into our design and then build them as one cohesive unit,” Kaplun told Via Satellite. “We have additively produced propellant tanks for a range of commercial and governmental customers.”
Thanks to the technology, the company can also experiment with new materials at a faster rate. “3D printing allows for a much more rapid turn,” says Kaplun. “We can get test articles to customers and to our material analysis. It’s really an enabling technology for our material science.” From metals such as titanium or aluminum to polymers doped with additives with electrostatic and electrical properties, the range of materials Lockheed Martin’s engineers can use to create satellite parts is expanding. Recently, the company developed a printable form of copper that can be used to print antennas directly onto structures.
“3D printing for use in space was first tested a few years ago, when a 3D-printed aluminium antenna bracket was fitted to the TurkmenAlem/MonacoSat satellite. In 2017, 45 communications satellites built by Thales Alenia Space as prime contractor were successfully orbited, all of them fitted with 3D-printed parts. In 2019, 100 metallic parts are in orbit, a figure that should quadruple next year with the Spacebus Neo Telecom satellites”, Montredon says. Today, all communications satellites made by the company feature 3D printed parts, including antenna brackets and reflector sleeves.
Along with robots, “cobots” — collaborative robots — and virtual and augmented reality, 3D printing will be a big part of the “Factory of the Future”. It has already found a place in Thales Alenia Space’s “clean rooms”, or manufacturing space in which airborne particulates, contaminants and pollutants are kept within strict limits. In the near future, all types of satellites, including Earth Observation ones, will feature space parts made thanks to additive manufacturing technology.
Mini-Cubes’s 3D printed, flight-ready PocketQubes
In 2020, Miniature satellite manufacturer Mini-Cubes, with the help of 3D printing service provider CRP USA, has developed and produced three 3D printed, flight-ready PocketQubes. The satellites were manufactured out of a carbon fiber reinforced composite material, Windform XT 2.0, using polymer SLS technology. According to Mini-Cubes, it is the first company in the world to employ the material type for this specific application – with promising results, no less.
Mini-Cubes’ satellite is named Discovery, and its primary purpose is to monitor natural resources on the surface of the Earth. This particular project was intended as a proof-of-concept for the company’s design. Joe Latrell, CEO of Mini-Cubes, had his first run-in with additive manufacturing a few years ago when he was prototyping rocket fins for his former aerospace employer. Seeking to leverage the technology once again, he turned to CRP USA to 3D print the frame of the satellite in its entirety.
Latrell explains: “We wanted to include a camera for visual observation, just to see if it could be done. If the process works, we can use the technology to create a constellation of PocketQube satellites just for monitoring a specific resource. In our case, that resource is water.”
The two main challenges faced in the development stage were miniaturization and material compatibility. Latrell, in his initial vision, pictured a satellite with an internal volume of just 50 x 50 x 50mm. Within its chamber would be a camera, a radio system, and all the electronics required to monitor Earth from several hundred miles away. The manufacturing of the external shell was no easy feat either, as a failure in one part meant the failure of the whole spacecraft. After much deliberation with CRP USA, Latrell eventually decided on carbon fiber reinforced Windform XT 2.0, a material that strikes a great balance between mechanical properties and printability.
Latrell adds: “The combination of strength and ease of use made the material a natural choice for us. We knew we wanted to use additive manufacturing for Discovery but understood that it would be hard to find something that would work in the harsh environment of space. We discovered Windform® XT 2.0 and after looking at its properties, it was a simple choice.”
The project involved the printing of three functional Discovery prototypes. Two are being used for testing while the final one will be sent up into orbit. Mini-Cubes claims the prototypes have already passed a number of tests thrown at them, such as a 20kg load test, a NASA GEVS-7000 specification vibration test, and a vacuum test. The PocketQubes have also survived temperatures between 50°C and -40°C. Latrell plans to test Discovery in orbit for the first time in Q2 of 2021.
The satellite manufacturing and launch systems market is poised to register a CAGR of more than 3.5%, during the period, from 2020-2025.
The requirements from customers are always ‘better, cheaper, faster,” says Andreas Lindenthal, chief operating officer and member of the board at Bremen, Germany-based, satellite manufacturer OHB. “For some of our customers — mainly the communication operators — the pressure in the market has increased significantly, therefore, they are not looking just for incremental improvements in this area; they are looking for disruption.”
“Satellite operators are telling us that they don’t have such a long term, stable unchanged business cases for 15 years, 20 years of satellite operation anymore,” says Lindenthal. “They are under pressure from their customers to have enhanced flexibility on the satellite from their side, therefore, they want to procure satellites, which are more flexible.”
In 2018, only eleven (or seven) GEO satellite orders have been placed around the world, a continuation of a decline that the industry has been witnessing in the past years. And while manufacturers believe that GEO satellite orders are likely to somewhat pick up in the future as companies order replacements for their aging fleets, it is clear that GEO satellite orders are no longer set to remain the indicator of the satellite manufacturing industry’s health as they were in the past. “There haven’t been many orders placed. People are waiting to see what the constellation performance is going to be like,” says Aidan Joy, the head of satellite assembly integration and test at Airbus. “The overall market is in a situation now where different business models are being analyzed. But whether it’s constellations, large GEOs or medium-sized GEOs, we will see those different business models mature and as a manufacturer we will need to be able to respond.”
Whichever the future direction, the manufacturers agree that the drive for more cost-effective solutions, shorter lead times, and increased flexibility is here to stay. The ways to meet the goal con be many, according to the manufacturers, with no one size fits all solution available.
SolAero Technologies Powers OneWeb’s Satellite Constellation
SolAero Technologies Corp. (SolAero), a leading provider of high efficiency solar cells, solar panels, and composite structural products for satellite and aerospace applications, congratulates the teams at OneWeb, Airbus OneWeb Satellites and Arianespace for the successful launch of 36 satellites of the OneWeb constellation. SolAero is proud to have supplied the solar panels for these satellites, launched from the Soyuz Launch Complex in Vostochny, Russia.
This mission brings the total fleet to 146 satellites in LEO (Low Earth Orbit). In 2021, the company is focused on scaling the satellite constellation to launch commercial services starting at the end of 2021 to the UK, Alaska, Canada, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, and the Arctic Seas.
SolAero’s high efficiency solar cells, optimized to meet the performance demands of the OneWeb mission, power the constellation. To support the programs’ production requirements, SolAero established the world’s first vertically integrated, high volume solar panel manufacturing facility at its headquarters in Albuquerque, NM. Established in 2018, the facility has now produced more than 1,000 individual solar panels that are powering over 200 satellites for a dozen different missions, demonstrating unrivaled manufacturing capability for satellite solar power products.