Spotlight: Trisept Corp. Thinking Small

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SAN FRANCISCO — TriSept Corp., a Chantilly, Va.-based launch integration services firm established nearly two decades ago to serve U.S. national security customers known for building big satellites, anticipates increasing demand from a growing range of customers eager to send small satellites into orbit.

Small-satellite services currently account for only 10 percent of the company’s business, but TriSept President Robert Spicer expects that business to comprise a majority of the firm’s work within three years.

“If you put up big satellites and something goes wrong, you lose a billion dollars,” Spicer said. When a small satellite fails, another can be sent into orbit to replace it much more quickly and inexpensively, he added.

Both government and commercial customers are expanding their use of small satellites to test new technologies, conduct scientific experiments, enhance communications and expand Earth observation. TriSept officials said they expect that trend to accelerate as engineers continue finding ways to pack electronic components into smaller packages and federal budget pressures force government agencies to trim costs. “It’s a lot more palatable to build, launch and integrate $5 million satellites as opposed to $900 million satellites,” Spicer said.

In addition, TriSept officials note that military leaders have made public statements in recent weeks suggesting that constellations of small spacecraft may be inherently more resilient because they are more difficult for adversaries to attack. For example, Gen. William Shelton, commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, suggested in an April 12 speech at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., that it might behoove the national security community “to disaggregate our capabilities on satellites so that we aren’t building such blueprinted targets, so to speak.”

Spicer founded TriSept in 1994 to provide launch integration and engineering services for military and intelligence agencies. The company’s first job was to help a national security customer deploy a satellite from the space shuttle, Spicer said. He declined to name that customer or identify the satellite.

National security customers still comprise a significant portion of the work being conducted by this 50-person firm, but company officials are seeing increasing demand for their services by university and industry customers.

“Most of our customers are satellite builders,” said Dan Allen, TriSept vice president for small satellites. “Launch integration is not their area of expertise.”

As a result, TriSept has established a business unit focused on small satellites services. The firm’s other business units provide launch integration services and software support. In the small satellite business unit, “customers develop the satellite and we handle the documents, scheduling, shipping,” Allen said. “It takes the pressure off them.”

TriSept currently launches those small satellites as secondary payloads on U.S. launch vehicles, although company officials are talking to international launch providers and hope to offer access to those rockets in the future, Spicer said. When primary launch customers have extra room, “we actually hit the streets and find out who is available to fly based on the volume and mass,” Allen said. “We can combine two, three or more payloads depending on margin available.” The company currently is seeking customers interested in launching small satellites in 2012 and 2013. While opportunities vary, TriSept generally performs launch integration services for small-satellite customers with payloads weighing between 1 and 150 kilograms, Allen said.

In the past, many large spacecraft builders were wary of making room for secondary payloads on their launch vehicles. “They are starting to change their minds,” Allen said. “Some [primary satellite operators] who, in the past, said flat out, ‘No, we will not share the ride,’ are becoming more open to the idea.”

To further ease the concerns of major satellite owners and operators, TriSept officials seek to assure them that the secondary payloads identified by the firm do not pose any threat to the primary satellite and its mission. “Secondary payloads must be as benign as possible so the primary satellite customers don’t feel threatened in any way, shape or form,” Spicer said. “Because, let’s face it, the primaries are paying 90 percent of the launch costs.”

TriSept officials also are in discussions with rocket builders to gain preliminary approval to launch generic small payloads of a certain volume and mass. The launch vehicle manufacturers would have to approve the plan, but the idea is to perform the preliminary loads analysis for payloads of a given size, Allen said.

“That way we could swap one payload for another if the first payload wasn’t ready,” Spicer added.

In the future, TriSept officials would like to buy entire launch vehicles and sell the available space to various customers. Company officials were interested in buying two Falcon 1e rockets, an enhanced version of the two-stage, liquid-fueled vehicle built by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif. “Our concept was to fly two or three a year,” Spicer said. “We would advertise flights to a specific altitude and orbit for anyone who wanted a ride.”

SpaceX, however, has halted development of the Falcon 1e while company officials concentrate efforts on developing the Dragon capsule to carry cargo and crew to the international space station, and the Falcon Heavy, a rocket large enough to compete for contracts to loft Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office satellites into orbit. If SpaceX resumes the Falcon 1e project, TriSept officials said they still would be interested in buying entire launch vehicles to fill with small satellites.

TriSept customers include the Defense Department’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office and Canadian satellite component builder Com Dev International. TriSept helped Com Dev identify a potential launch for one of its microsatellites. That opportunity fell through due to a change in plans by the launch provider. Perry Edmundson, production manager for Com Dev’s mission development group, said in an email that he would turn to TriSept again to find future launch opportunities.

TriSept is a subcontractor working with ORS to support small satellite launch and range projects. The company has expertise in integrating small payloads, especially multipayload missions, with launch vehicles, said Steven Buckley, launch and range leader for the ORS office at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. Currently, TriSept is assisting ORS in launching hardware on sounding rockets. TriSept will continue to support integration for future orbital launches, Buckley said.

In addition to its Chantilly headquarters, TriSept has employees in El Segundo, Calif., Cape Canaveral, Fla., and Las Cruces and Albuquerque, N.M.