Inside the satellite factory: How LeoStella uses software to track spacecraft hardware

Workers check out an assembled satellite at LeoStella’s manufacturing facility. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

TUKWILA, Wash. — LeoStella’s satellite factory has tons of hardware spread out over 22,000 square feet of space, but the secret ingredient for its manufacturing process may well be the software.

“What you see here is the physical layout,” Brian Rider, LeoStella’s chief technology officer, told us during a tour of the satellite venture’s headquarters in Tukwila, just south of Seattle. “But what’s a little bit harder to see is the digital process behind it.”

LeoStella, a joint venture co-owned by BlackSky Holdings and Thales Alenia Space, relies on a workflow management system that tracks satellite components all the way through design and manufacturing. Employees use a digital dashboard to make sure that every part is in its proper place at the proper time.

“It’s truly not just a paperless process, but it’s a digital, intelligent manufacturing approach,” Rider explained. “We can record all of our manufacturing details. We can do statistical process control and understand where we have areas where we can make our systems less restrictive, or more restrictive to improve product quality.”

The facility itself is designed to maximize efficiency for turning out up to 40 satellites per year, including two satellites per month for BlackSky’s Earth-observation constellation. The interior of a standard-issue building in a suburban business park was extensively remodeled when LeoStella took over the space in 2018.

“Not many companies have the chance to take a step back and start from a clean sheet of paper, and really think about all the aspects that make satellite production possible and efficient and affordable,” Rider said. “That’s what we did at LeoStella.”

Two of the 120-pound (55-kilogram) satellites that LeoStella built for BlackSky were lost a week ago when a Rocket Lab launch failed, but more are on the way. One of BlackSky’s satellites was sitting on the factory floor during our tour, ready to be packed up and shipped to its launch location.

Meanwhile, workers on the other side of the clean room were checking out one of Loft Orbital’s satellites, which will eventually accommodate payloads from multiple customers including the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Still other satellites were in various stages of assembly.

LeoStella can adapt its standard satellite design to take on a wide range of orbital tasks. Each satellite typically consists of four decks, analogous to the decks of a ship. The propulsion deck is at the bottom, with the avionics deck, the payload deck and the antenna deck layered on top of each other.

Each spacecraft is assembled on a handling fixture that can be wheeled into a bay for finishing up the connections and testing its integrated performance. There’s also a room-sized vibration chamber where satellites can be rattled around on three axes to make sure they can weather the stresses of launch and deployment.

Avionics software gets checked out on “flat sat” workbenches that are strewn with electronics. And in another corner of the building, a thermal testing chamber can subject components to hundreds of degrees of heat, or chill them down to the frosty conditions they could face in space.

LeoStella’s job isn’t finished when the satellites are launched. Because it has such a close corporate relationship with BlackSky, the performance data from BlackSky’s satellites can be fed back to Tukwila for analysis.

“We do an enormous amount of on-orbit validation, where we take on-orbit behavior and test data and correlate them to our predictions to make sure that we’re correctly modeling the performance and the behavior of the satellites,” Rider said. “It’s all interconnected to that digital backbone that we created.”

Rider said LeoStella can fine-tune the production process in midstream.

“We’ll build a certain number of satellites, and if there’s an opportunity to improve the technology — maybe an improvement in the supply chain, or new capabilities — we’re able to insert those into our production line in a strategic fashion to constantly evolve that capability,” he said. “That also applies to our flight software.”

Speaking of evolution, LeoStella expects to evolve its capabilities as well. Rider said the company’s workforce currently amounts to a little more than 40 employees — and most of them have been able to work remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the company’s digital platform.

Now LeoStella is looking ahead to new programs, including the development of a third-generation BlackSky satellite that’s expected to play a key role in the U.S. Army’s Tactical Geospatial Intelligence prototype program, or TACGEO.

“We’re planning to hire another five or six through the end of this year, and possibly more as our business evolves,” Rider said.

Someday, a 22,000-square-foot satellite factory might not be big enough. But LeoStella has a plan for that.

“That’s part of the reason why we picked this industrial park here,” Rider said. “There are two large buildings, and each building is a little bit more than 80,000 square feet. So there’s a lot of opportunity for us to scale.”

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