The Hum of High Volume

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Space Systems/Loral’s manufacturing facility buzzes with activity. During a Feb. 11 media briefing on Telenor Satellite Broadcasting’s Thor 7 spacecraft, SSL engineers and technicians were assembling, integrating and testing 11 satellites in the company’s facility here.

High demand has prompted SSL to boost manufacturing capacity and upgrade facilities. In late 2014, the company began exposing satellites to temperature extremes in a new thermal vacuum chamber, a blue stainless steel cylinder large enough to hold two satellites the size of school buses back-to-back. It is SSL’s second thermal vacuum chamber and its construction means the firm will save time because it will not have to ship satellites to outside testing facilities when its original vacuum chamber, built in 1969, is occupied, SSL President John Celli said. Last year, SSL also added a clean room large enough to house a Boeing 737 jet.

The new facilities are designed to help SSL accommodate orders from traditional satellite operators who supply bandwidth for television broadcasts, private business networks, data and voice communications, consumer broadband, and mobile communications for maritime and aviation markets, as well as from new customers like PT Bank Rakyat Indonesia (BRI).

John Celli
“With hundreds of millions of people who don’t have satellite services, there is plenty of room for continued growth,” SSL President John Celli said. Credit: SSL

“All of the capacity available from satellite operators in the region was not projected to be enough to meet the future needs of BRI,” Celli said. As a result, BRI hired SSL in April 2014 to build a C-band and Ku-band satellite to orbit at 150.5 degrees east longitude to transmit secure communications for its 9,800 branches and 50 million customers throughout the Indonesian archipelago.

In addition to the BRI award, SSL won contracts in 2014 to build eight geostationary satellites: two satellites for Sky Perfect Jsat of Japan, two for Spanish satellite operator Hispasat, and single satellites for EchoStar Corp. of Englewood, Colorado; Intelsat of Washington and Luxembourg; Pasifik Satelit Nusantara of Jakarta; and Bulgaria Sat, an affiliate of Bulsatcom, Bulgaria’s largest provider of paid television and telecommunications services. Skybox Imaging of Mountain View, California, which was acquired in June 2014 by Google, also selected SSL in 2014 to build 13 spacecraft to gather high-resolution still imagery and video from low Earth orbit.

Although 2014 was SSL’s busiest year in terms of contract awards, company officials say the firm is well equipped to handle additional orders. “I’ve been in this business for 40 years and I’ve only seen growth in the satellite industry,” Celli said. “With hundreds of millions of people who don’t have satellite services, there is plenty of room for continued growth.”

In anticipation of strong demand, SSL, with the backing of its parent company, Canada’s MDA Corp., has worked to streamline internal processes, control costs, shorten schedules and update technologies.

“We are re-evaluating our approach to all aspects of our business, and in the process, we have been able to eliminate outdated or duplicative procedures and focus on new technology development,” Celli said.

Some of that development is focused on SSL’s high-throughput satellites, which are increasingly popular among customers seeking to transmit data and video services directly to customers. SSL has nearly completed construction of two Ka-band high throughput satellites for NBN Co. Ltd. The satellites are designed to provide Internet broadband services in rural and remote areas of Australia using 101 individual spot beams on each spacecraft.

Thor 7 satellite assembly and test
Telenor’s Thor 7 satellite (above in assembly and test at SSL’s facility) is designed to be flexible enough to meet changing market demands and perform multiple missions. Credit: SSL

Telenor’s Thor 7 satellite, scheduled to launch April 15 from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, on an Ariane 5 rocket, is designed to perform multiple missions. The satellite carries a Ka-band payload to provide maritime communications and a Ku-band payload to offer radio and television services in Central and Eastern Europe.

Thor 7 is designed to be flexible enough to meet changing market demands, said Oddveig Tretterud, Telenor’s Thor 7 program director. The spacecraft can operate as many as 25 Ka-band spot beams simultaneously and carries a steerable Ka-band reflector.

Increasingly, customers are seeking spacecraft flexible enough to accommodate changing market demands, which is leading to standardization of satellite components. The goal is to produce satellites that can be built and launched in 18 months with the customer configuring certain elements of the payload in orbit.

Space Systems/Loral at a Glance

Location: Palo Alto, California

Established: 1957 as Philco Western Development Laboratories

Parent Company: MDA Corp.

Top Official: John Celli, president

Mission: Design and build the most reliable, affordable spacecraft and space systems to enable global communications, commerce, education, entertainment, health services, disaster recovery and Earth observation.

“That has the potential to reduce the satellite price for our customers.” Celli said. “We are one of the satellite manufacturers pushing this. We plan to bid the first flexible satellite soon.”

SSL is one the world’s largest satellite manufacturers. Established in 1957 as Philco Western Development Laboratories, SSL was purchased by Ford Aerospace in 1976, Loral Space and Communications in 1990 and MDA in 2012. SSL built 78 of the approximately 300 commercial communications satellites in orbit and the firm has a backlog of 22 geostationary satellites.

In the past, SSL has focused primarily on building large satellites to send into geostationary orbit for commercial and government customers. Under the production deal with Skybox signed in February 2014, SSL received an exclusive license to market the startup’s design, “an innovative bus for low Earth orbit missions,” said David Bernstein, SSL senior vice president of program management. SSL is actively marketing that bus and encountering significant interest from organizations around the world, Steve Oldham, SSL vice president for strategic business development, said by email.

Intelsat 20 satellite
Intelsat 20 satellite in the high bay at SSL. Credit: SSL

In recent years, SSL also has been looking for ways to reduce the cost of access to geostationary orbit for its customers, such as hosted payloads and shared rides. In 2017, SSL plans to host a payload for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center on a commercial communications satellite that has not yet been identified. As part of the project, known as Laser Communications Relay Demonstration, NASA Goddard plans to conduct a two-year test of its ability to transmit data through optical links.

SSL, Boeing Network and Space Systems of El Segundo, California, and Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia, are working under a U.S. Air Force contract to study ways each firm could host a NASA atmospheric sensor on a commercial satellite in geostationary orbit. The sensor, Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution, is slated to launch in 2018.

In a variation on the hosted payload idea, SSL is working with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on an initiative called Payload Orbital Delivery. Under a contract awarded in July 2014, SSL is building hardware to enable a DARPA satellite weighing 68 to 100 kilograms to hitch a ride with a communications satellite to geostationary orbit on an SSL 1300 commercial satellite platform before being ejected. Payload Orbital Delivery is an element of DARPA’s Phoenix program, which is investigating options for robotic servicing of spacecraft in geostationary orbit. Through Payload Orbital Delivery, DARPA is seeking to reduce the cost and time required to launch government science and technology missions.


Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...