Small satellites rolling off Raytheon’s missile assembly line

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Buck Larkin, program manager at Raytheon Missile Systems: “Small satellites is a good match for our missile production lines.”

Small Satellite ManufacturingWASHINGTON — A small remote-sensing satellite built at Raytheon’s missile factory in Tucson, Arizona, has been waiting for two years to go to space aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

The launch of the “Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements,” or SeeMe, is now scheduled for November. Raytheon is hoping that a successful launch and deployment of the 22kg satellite — about the size of a five-gallon paint can — will propel the company’s small satellite business forward.

SeeMe originally was a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency project with a goal of building a 24-satellite constellation in low-Earth orbit to provide imagery directly to soldiers on the ground. DARPA wanted to show that small satellites operated by military users on the ground can deliver tactical imagery faster than commercial providers and more economically than aerial drones.

Raytheon won a DARPA contract in 2013 to design and produce SeeMe satellites, but the agency ended the program two years later and agreed to help Raytheon finish the production of the first satellite and also agreed to pay for the launch. DARPA will integrate the SeeMe satellite onto a Spaceflight Industries payload.

Buck Larkin, program manager at Raytheon Missile Systems, said the company has worked over the past five to seven years to build up its small satellite business.

“Small satellites is a good match for our missile production lines,” he told SpaceNews. “When we’re building missiles we’re building small electronics packages, small guidance sections, small seekers.” The test lines used for missile products work for small satellites because they are the same form factor, he said. “We get better utilization out of our test equipment.”

In the same Falcon 9 launch as SeeMe will be two other Raytheon-built small satellites made for the Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space office, which has been renamed Space Rapid Capabilities Office. Two ORS-7 satellites named Polar Scout will be used by the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Homeland Security to detect transmissions from emergency position indicating radio beacons that are carried on board vessels at sea.

A unidentified military customer will test the SeeMe satellite in early 2019. “It’s only a demonstration,” said Larkin. “Customers are still trying to understand how to use commercial imagery.” Raytheon will try to sell them on the advantages of having one’s own satellite. Larkin said the project is two years late because of launch delays caused by a Falcon 9 explosion in 2016 and a subsequent accident investigation. “We got bumped from a couple of launches,” said Larkin. “Without SeeMe in orbit we’ve been in a little bit of a standstill,” he said. “Once it gets launched we hope it opens up interest in direct-to-user imagery from small  satellites.”