Sierra Nevada Ramps Up Small Satellite Assembly Line

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WASHINGTON — Since landing its first major satellite production contract to build Orbcomm’s next-generation fleet last May, Sierra Nevada Corp. has spent much of the past year ramping up its production facilities and will begin building the satellites this summer, company officials said April 15.

Sparks, Nev.-based Sierra Nevada will build 18 of the 130-kilogram two-way digital messaging satellites under the first phase of the contract and may build 30 to 40 more under the next phase, Mark Sirangelo, vice president of Sierra Nevada’s space systems group, said in an interview.

With spacecraft components becoming smaller and more efficient in the past five years Sierra Nevada is betting that a bona-fide small satellite production line will enable government and commercial customers to conduct space missions not previously possible with satellites weighing a couple hundred kilograms or less, Sirangelo said.

“We’re starting to see considerable interest in the small satellite world,” Sirangelo said. “These kinds of platforms can be used for things like tracking and identification, Earth monitoring and weather observation. These are not science experiments.”

Sierra Nevada recently stood up its space systems group to bring together two small satellite companies it acquired last year: MicroSat Systems of Littleton Colo., and SpaceDev Inc. of Poway,Calif., which owned satellite component and subsystem manufacturer Starsys Research Corp. The space systems group, which comprises some 300 employees, divides its sales roughly 50-50 betweenU.S.government and commercial customers, Sirangelo said.

Each of the three companies in the new group have been in the space business at least 10 years. SpaceDev was founded in 1997 and specializes in propulsion systems. It built the hybrid rocket motor for Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne and is now building the motor for SpaceShipTwo, a larger, passenger-carrying version of the Ansari X Prize-winning suborbital spacecraft.

SpaceDev also builds nanosatellites, including the Trailblazer satellite chosen by the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space office last year for its inaugural launch under the so-called Jumpstart program. The goal of assembling a satellite for launch in a short timeframe was achieved, but the satellite’s Falcon 1 launch vehicle failed to reach orbit.

Hoping to capitalize on SpaceDev’s investment in reusable spacecraft, Sierra Nevada would like to see NASA turn to the commercial sector for transporting astronauts to the international space station. For the past several years the company has been investing its own research and development money in the Dream Chaser, a lifting-body spaceplane that would launch on top of an existing Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) such as the Atlas 5 and return to Earth with a space shuttle-style horizontal landing. NASA is now working with the company on the project under an unfunded agreement. With proper funding from NASA, the Dream Chaser could be ready for launch in three years, Sirangelo said.

MicroSat, meanwhile, is best known for building the Air Force Research Laboratory’s TacSat-2 satellite, the first in the military’s responsive satellite series to launch. MicroSat also has completed the integration and testing of the Demonstration and Science Experiments satellite it built for the Air Force, but the satellite has yet to find a ride to space. Designed to take advantage of excess capacity on EELVs, the satellite bus itself is a secondary payload adapter ring, with the propulsion and communications elements installed on one side of the ring and the payload on the other side. It will be delivered to the Air Force in October, said Jim Voss, Sierra Nevada’s director of advanced programs.

In addition to building small satellites, MicroSat has built components for more than 300 military, civil and commercial satellites. The company builds many different moving parts, including many of the motorized subsystems for the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers and the antenna gimbals for the Air Force’s new Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellites.

In keeping with its small satellite heritage, Sierra Nevada sees a big future in supplementing what larger classes of satellites do in space. One area is electro-optical satellite imagery, where the company has submitted three bids to the government to build comparatively tiny imaging satellites, Sirangelo said.

“A lot of people think it’s all or nothing [in satellite imaging],” he said. “But for certain applications, having a high revisit rate with many small platforms with lower image quality is desirable.”