New Sierra Nevada Facility’s Assembly Line Dedicated to Small Satellites

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SAN FRANCISCO — In an effort to reduce the time and expense of building multiple satellites with similar designs, Sierra Nevada Space Systems is setting up the first major manufacturing facility with an assembly line specifically designed to produce a variety of small satellites, said Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president for Sierra Nevada Corp. and chairman of Sierra Nevada Space Systems.

“We are gearing up in our minds to produce hundreds of small satellites, not just five or 10 or 15,” Sirangelo said. “We have got multiple clients who are interested in large constellations. It has given us the motivation to put the resources behind looking at how one accomplishes that purpose.”

The new 9,300-square-meter manufacturing facility is located in Louisville, Colo., where Sierra Nevada Space Systems is based. It will house production of 18 satellites being built for Orbcomm Inc. of Fort Lee, N.J., to enhance the company’s space-based constellation, which offers two-way data communications to monitor and track mobile and fixed assets. In 2008, Orbcomm awarded Sierra Nevada a $130 million contract to build 18 second-generation satellites with options for 30 additional spacecraft.

Design work is complete on the Orbcomm craft, and the first batch of satellites is under construction. “All major subcomponents have been completed and tested,” Sirangelo said. “We expect to begin delivering the satellites on schedule later this year.”

The schedule calls for Orbcomm to launch the first of those satellites between December 2010 and March 2011, with the entire group launched by the end of 2014. Orbcomm announced plans in September to send the satellites into low Earth orbit on Space Exploration Technologies’ Falcon 1e rocket, an enhanced version of the Falcon 1.

In addition to building the Orbcomm satellites, Sierra Nevada’s new manufacturing facility is designed to accommodate work for other commercial, military and civil satellite customers in the United States and around the world. The facility includes a separate, secure area to handle production of small satellites built under classified military programs, Sirangelo said.

“As soon as we won the [Orbcomm] contract, we began looking at variations of the same basic satellite bus that could be built on a semi-custom production line; meaning that not every satellite has to be exactly the same,” said John Roth, vice president of business development for Sierra Nevada Space Systems. “So we have got the same basic bus with some modifications built into other military programs, commercial programs and civil programs. We are trying to leverage as much market as we can to keep the production line going.”

The new plant includes three parallel assembly lines, enabling its 180 workers to conduct assembly, integration and testing of three satellites at the same time. To keep the operation flowing, test stands allow the satellites to be rotated in multiple directions and testing equipment is on wheels so it can be moved quickly and easily, Roth said.

As part of its overall campaign to trim costs and schedule, Sierra Nevada also purchased its own testing equipment. “Many of the companies that do what we do have to go out to other organizations to do vibration testing or vacuum testing of the satellites,” Sirangelo said. “That takes time and produces risk.”

Company officials declined to discuss the amount of money invested in the new facility. What they will discuss, however, is the reason they made that investment. Dramatic reductions in the size of spacecraft components coupled with gains in efficiency and capability make the small satellite business very promising, according to Sirangelo.

“We believe this segment of the satellite business has got good potential,” Sirangelo said. “We also think the timing is right. People are starting to take what we do seriously. Small satellites are not considered toys anymore.”

Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev., began positioning itself to become a major player in the small satellite market in 2008 through its acquisition of MicroSat Systems of Littleton, Colo., and Sirangelo’s old company, SpaceDev Inc. of Poway, Calif. Sierra Nevada Space Systems, formed in 2009 to merge those business units, continues to develop and build satellites in Littleton and Poway. Those facilities are used primarily during the process of spacecraft prototyping. When a prototype is approved and a customer orders multiple satellites, the work moves into the new manufacturing facility in Louisville, Sirangelo said.

With a backlog of more than 50 satellites ordered by multiple customers, Sierra Nevada officials also are looking into the possibility of buying subcomponents in larger lots. Roth, the former president of MicroSat Systems, said Sierra Nevada officials are talking to suppliers about the possibility of buying satellite components in groups of 20 to be delivered over three years to four years, instead of buying two components at a time. “We ask those folks what their pricing would be and how we could work with them to improve efficiency,” Roth said.