Government-Industry Team Builds, Tests Satellite in 10 Months

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WASHINGTON — A trio of Huntsville, Ala.-based organizations, including NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, recently completed in 10 months construction and testing of an experimental satellite that will carry a half-dozen government payloads to orbit next spring.

NASA, the not-for-profit Von Braun Center for Science and Information (VCSI) and aerospace firm Dynetics teamed up to build FASTSat-HSV, short for Fast Affordable Science and Technology Satellite-Huntsville. Dynetics purchased the rights to the satellite’s design from VCSI last year for $4.4 million, and the company plans to compete in the market for government and commercial small satellites, Steve Cook, manager of Dynetics’ space systems division, said in a Dec. 15 interview.

“Dynetics, VCSI and Marshall Space Flight Center together completed environmental testing of the spacecraft 10 months from the start of construction,” said Cook, who until September had led NASA’s development of the Ares 1 and Ares 5 rockets at Marshall.

“That’s a very rapid pace. That kind of ‘skunk works’ model — where we bring the fabricators and designers together and use some innovative business and procurement strategies — allows us to get things done quickly, and time is money,” he said.

FASTSat-HSV will host two U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory payloads — the Threat Detection System, and the Roll-out and Passively Deployed Array — and three NASA science experiments. It also will host a reflight of NASA’s Nanosail D experiment, a 10-square-meter solar sail built by Marshall to show that solar winds can be used as a primary source of spacecraft propulsion. NASA’s first Nanosail was lost aboard a Falcon 1 rocket that failed to reach orbit during an August 2008 launch attempt.

FASTSat-HSV is slated to launch no sooner than May 28 as a secondary payload on Orbital Sciences Corp.’s new Minotaur 4 rocket, a vehicle utilizing excess U.S. ballistic missile motors. While the Minotaur 4 was expected to make its debut in October 2009, the rocket has experienced technical troubles and its first launch has been indefinitely delayed.

The primary payload on the Minotaur 4 that will launch FASTSat-HSV is STPSat-2, the first satellite based on the Space Test Program-Standard Interface Vehicle (STP-SIV) built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo. Both FASTSat and STP-SIV are 180-kilogram-class platforms that can be launched as primary payloads or as secondary payloads compatible with a variety of adapters. While Ball Aerospace in July was awarded a contract to build a second STP-SIV spacecraft, Dynetics is still waiting for additional orders for FASTSat, which it offers for around $10 million apiece, Cook said.

“We’ve got to get this one done and be successful at it to earn credibility with the community,” Cook said.

FASTSat-HSV is the first full satellite Dynetics has built, but the 35-year-old engineering firm has a diverse aerospace background that includes tactical and ballistic missile systems design, engineering support for electro-optical and infrared systems and prototyping of mechanical and electrical systems for the Pentagon. To help break into the small-satellite market, Dynetics purchased Orion Propulsion Inc. of Huntsville, in a deal  announced Dec. 15. The purchase price was not disclosed.

Orion Propulsion has 30 employees and develops rocket and spacecraft propulsion systems primarily for NASA and commercial customers. The company on Dec. 10 delivered the gaseous hydrogen and oxygen propulsion system for Bigelow Aerospace’s Sundancer inflatable space station module that is set to launch in 2011, Orion Propulsion’s founder and chief technical officer, Tim Pickens, said in a Dec. 15 interview.

“This is a pretty exciting day for us,” Pickens said. “The idea of using some of our products and integrating them into some of the systems that Dynetics is working on is a really cool proposition. It will give us a lot more reach with the Defense Department, on top of the very wonderful relationship we have with our NASA customer.”

While FASTSat-HSV uses a passive attitude control system, potential customers for future FASTSats are interested in more accurate pointing and maneuvering capabilities, Cook said. Orion Propulsion would build the small thrusters if customers want these more-capable spacecraft, he said.

“It comes down to cost and responsiveness,” Cook said. “This vertical integration will allow us to do things more quickly and get them out the door cheaper than having to go out and subcontract for all the various pieces. In a critical area like propulsion, which can be a big cost and schedule driver, now we can get all the folks sitting literally at one facility working on the problem.”