SSL strategy chief says small satellites will enhance work of huge government spacecraft

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Through reorganization, studies and contracts, SSL is positioning itself to claim a share of the commercial and government small satellite markets

LOGAN, Utah — In the coming years, defense and intelligence agencies will rely on small satellites to enhance the capabilities of large government-owned and -operated spacecraft, said Rob Zitz, senior vice president and chief strategy officer for SSL Government Systems, a subsidiary of Maxar Technologies.

“There will be a period of time where you will have both the exquisite capabilities and the enhancement layer,” said Zitz, who spent more than 30 years working for U.S. intelligence agencies. “I don’t think that’s inappropriate. When you’ve made serious investments in amazing capabilities, you are going to want to wring as much out of those as you can.”

Nevertheless, small satellites will play a growing role, which explains SSL’s recent moves to create a small satellite division based in a new facility in San Jose, California.

“We see growth in terms of contracts and in terms of studies we believe will lead to very large contracts for these smaller satellites,” Zitz told SpaceNews at the Small Satellite Conference here.

SSL is on contract to build 19 SkySat satellites for Planet, the San Francisco-based Earth imaging company. It performs that work in Palo Alto, California. The new satellite manufacturing facility in San Jose is designed to satisfy growing demand for satellites in the 100 to roughly 500 kilogram range, Howard Lance, Maxar chief executive, said July 31 on a conference call with analysts.

At the same time, SSL will continue to manufacture larger satellites for U.S. government missions including Psyche, a NASA mission to send a satellite to study an asteroid made of iron and nickel, Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites, a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program, and Restore-L, a NASA campaign to refuel the Landsat 7 spacecraft.

Through reorganization, studies and contracts, SSL is positioning itself to claim a share of the commercial and government small satellite markets.

SSL is conducting a study for the U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center to explore resilient space architectures as part of the Space Enterprise Vision, an overarching campaign to ensure space-based systems and networks will continue to perform their missions during a conflict that extends to space.

SSL also has been selected through the Space Enterprise Consortium managed by Advanced Technology International to lead a team that will provide the U.S. Missile Defense Agency with a persistent space layer prototype concept for missile defense. The SSL team includes Radiant Solutions, a Maxar Company, and Systems Engineering Associates of Torrance, California. “We will provide an end-to-end solution that includes overarching system engineering and integration support,” SSL spokesman Omar Mahmoud said by email. The Space Enterprise Consortium, established late last year, focuses on prototype projects to address Defense Department requirements for new space systems.

On the commercial side, SSL is working with Thales Alenia Space to design Canadian fleet operator Telesat’s low Earth orbit broadband satellite constellation.

Among government agencies, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and National Reconnaissance Organization were the first to recognize they could augment their “exquisite capability with commercial capability,” Zitz said. “I suggest you will see the same thing in missile warning, communications, weather and positioning, navigation and timing.”

In many cases, satellites built to enhance government constellations will require more power and larger payloads than cubesats can carry, Zitz said. Based on those requirements, government agencies probably will purchase small satellites in the 100 to 700-kilogram range for these missions, he added.