With a new satellite factory in the U.S., Airbus eyes opportunities in military space

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For Airbus and other satellite manufacturers, a key opportunity is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Blackjack program.

WASHINGTON — A satellite assembly line built by Airbus will be up and running in Florida this fall, with full production projected to start later this year.

The plant, located on Florida’s space coast, will manufacture satellites for Airbus’ joint venture with broadband startup OneWeb, an effort that will require at least 900 spacecraft in low Earth orbit.

Airbus hopes the investment will position the company to win military contracts. The big selling point will be the speed of the assembly line, executives believe. The military is becoming more interested in LEO constellations of small satellites as a more resilient alternative to large, monolithic platforms in higher orbits. In a conflict, if U.S. satellites were targeted by lasers or electronic jammers, new ones could be quickly produced and launched.

A key opportunity for space industry players is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Blackjack program, described as an “architecture demonstration intending to show the high military utility of global LEO constellations and mesh networks of lower size, weight and cost.”

DARPA wants to buy commercial satellite buses and marry them with military sensors and payloads. This makes Blackjack an attractive project for mass manufacturers like Airbus and SpaceX (which also plans to produce and launch a huge LEO constellation) that can compete on price and response time.

The agency is expected to award $117.5 million in contracts over three phases to up to eight bus and payload suppliers. The first awards could come as early as August. At least two of the selected vendors will be bus manufacturers.

The machines that will make OneWeb satellites are still being tested at the company’s main plant in Toulouse, France, before they are shipped to Florida in the coming weeks, said Tim Deaver, director of U.S. space systems at Airbus Defense and Space.

Airbus will be producing at least two 150-kilogram satellites per day at the Florida facility. “We’re confident we can get to 10 per week quickly,” he said last week at the 2018 MilSatCom conference. That output is based on five eight-hour workdays, he said. The new factory will have two lines, and production could be scaled up if needed.

Commercial space firms view the Blackjack program as a bellwether. The use of small satellites in military missions is a sharp departure from traditional military space procurements, said Deaver. “This is about using numbers to overwhelm the enemy,” he said. “You can quickly reconstitute if you can launch 32 satellites at a time and manufacture two per day.”

Blackjack will start out with a couple of satellites and build up to a prototype constellation of 20 over the next three years. If the experiment is successful, it could lead to a larger “program of record” and could influence more broadly how the military buys space systems. “If you have 100 satellites with million-dollar payloads versus one couple-of-hundred-million dollar spacecraft, you can diversify,” Deaver said.

OneWeb satellites have 50 kilograms of payload capacity. A crucial test will be whether standard buses can be matched up with custom payloads for sensitive military missions. “This is not trivial,” said Deaver. “Anyone who has ever tried it knows there are design constraints.”

DARPA will require bus providers to share some design data with payload suppliers so they know the limitations, said Deaver. “And then we have to work together.” Sometimes, even when payloads are successfully installed and are able to transfer data, other challenges come up, he said. “The tougher ones are mechanical, like vibration from the launch vehicle.”

Mass production of satellites at a rapid pace and at low cost requires a different business culture than that of traditional defense contracting. “It’s easier to take guys from the automotive industry and teach them how to make something ‘space qualified’ than it is to take someone used to making things ‘space qualified’ and teach them to produce fast, with the quality and reliability you need for spacecraft,” Deaver said.

Senior Pentagon officials such as Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin have called on the military to take more risks with new space technologies, and that is driving the military to consider  small satellites. Losing a small satellite is not as catastrophic as a billion-dollar satellite failure. “With couple-of-million dollar satellites, you get mission assurance through the pure numbers you put up,” Deaver said. “It’s an architecture-based mission assurance, not based on an individual satellite.”