Satellite Manufacturers Tout Their Agility

Satellite manufacturing giants touted their commitment to agile development and spending on new capabilities like on-orbit refueling at Tuesday’s closing session of SATELLITE 2020, painting a rosy picture of a growing sector embracing innovation.

Satellite manufacturing giants touted their commitment to agile development and spending on new capabilities like on-orbit refueling at Tuesday’s closing session of SATELLITE 2020, painting a rosy picture of a growing sector embracing innovation.

Northrop Grumman executive Frank DeMauro kicked off the panel with a brief account of the company’s historic Mission Extension Vehicle-1, which earlier this month carried out the first ever on-orbit docking by a commercial satellite.

The MEV-1 is designed to extend the life of Geostationary (GEO) communications satellites that have run out of fuel and are slowly slipping out of orbit. It docks with the satellite and effectively becomes a propulsion system — enabling the satellite to adjust position and stay on orbit. Other companies are also planning or building similar vehicles, and executives tout the idea that in-orbit repair and refueling services is a lucrative new line of business for manufacturers.

DeMauro, the vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman’s Space Systems Division, was a special project that is now opening up a whole new market.

The mission, which the company funded itself, was planned as a demonstration, he said. “Certainly, customers were watching. … The case we can now make is that the system works, and it works well. ... We see this new market growing fast in the commercial and government sectors.”

Other panelists see growth in existing markets, as defense and space budgets rise on both sides of the Atlantic, and aging legacy commercial constellations are recapitalized.

“Lots of operators have waited to make decisions,” said Pascal Homsy, executive vice president of telecommunications for Thales Alenia Space. “Now we have lots of customers with satellites coming to end of life.”

Innovations like software-defined satellites are also powering growth, Homsy said, enabling flexibility from the ground that has never existed before.

Lockheed Martin Space Vice President of Communication Satellite Solutions Guy Beutelschies hailed the company’s software-defined satellite architecture SmartSat, the Pony Express. “We launched it to test technologies that will enable a new generation of capabilities in space. A very powerful processor, innovative software on board, the capability to create networks so that we can start blurring the line between what processing you can do on the ground and what you can do in orbit,” he said.

And the company moved from conception to launch in just nine months, he said a speed that “excites our researchers and our employees. … They want to go faster.” The company is now working toward Pony Express 2.

But Daniel Jablonsky, president and CEO of Maxar Technologies, issued a note of caution, acknowledging the tension between pushing the envelope of agility and creativity, while providing customers with the high reliability and error-free engineering that the unforgiving environment of space demands.

“You want to nurture innovation and creativity, but at the same time, build things that meet triple-nine reliability standards,” Jablonsky said. “So you’re in two different ecosystems at the same time.”

The real art, he said, is figuring out how to harness creativity to the demands of engineering. “The bigger challenge for us has been nurturing both of those things at the same time,” he said. “You need repeatable processes that people can buy into and [that] make sense. Without that, the creativity can mean a hot mess on orbit.”

And Jablonsky also admitted uncertainty about the future as the space sector changes — even as it continues to grow.

“I’m not sure what the new normal is,” he said, adding that “defense budgets and space budgets are as high as they’ve ever been in Europe as well as the U.S. It’s a good time to be in the space business.”

But even short-term uncertainty is a problem for manufacturers because they need to make investment decisions, said Jean Marc Nasr, executive vice president and head of space systems for Airbus Defense and Space. “There is instability on the operator side. What will be the operator landscape in the next five years? You can’t see it,” he said, adding “In the long term, it is growth.”

The proliferation of startup space projects adds to short-term uncertainty, and not knowing which projects are “real” is scary, Homsy said, arguing that so many requests blurs the market.

Even more scary is the threat of a cybersecurity breach.

“It’s the only thing that keeps me awake at night,” said Nasr, noting that the industry has the trust of customers, regulators and the public. “The day that someone takes control over our satellite, that trust will be gone.” VS

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