While disruption has had a long history with the space industry, we’ve never seen innovation at the pace we’re seeing today. The industry is seeing new investment vehicles to fund forward-thinking offerings, more efficient manufacturing processes, and new designs that help organizations get into space faster than ever before. The concept of fast and forward is the new norm for today’s commercial and government missions.
According to Space Angels, 2019 recorded the largest year on record for space investment with $5.8 billion in total funding for space companies. As industry advancements make space more accessible and affordable, it’s no surprise companies are looking to capitalize on potential new sources of revenue. Launchers are being built with capabilities to lift payloads of approximately 50,000 pounds into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), creating new opportunities to access data and information. Launch costs are also coming down in part due to a focus on reusing system elements.
We’re seeing an unparalleled level of creativity and innovation in space, resulting in the emergence of more commercial satellites. The creativity is opening new markets faster than ever before and is helping to bring down the cost of entering orbit.
Space offers endless opportunities for innovation and growth, which is why today’s space economy has big dollar signs attached to it. Wall Street anticipates space will be a multitrillion-dollar industry over the next 10 to 20 years. Growth drivers include the desire for space tourism and entertainment services and apps that connect people in their home, on the road, and in the air.
Government and public entities are also finding new ways to tap into innovation at a rapid pace. Along with the Department of Defense’s increasing use of Other Transaction Authority (OTA) contracts, designed to help federal agencies incorporate new technologies more quickly, the United States Air Force (USAF) held its first USAF Space Pitch Day. The two-day conference was developed to identify and fund the latest innovations from small businesses. The USAF awarded 30 companies $750,000 on the spot and an additional $1.5 million to seven of those companies to further advance their research. Stratagem Group, a small business that partnered with L3Harris to pitch an offering for data quality assessments, was one of the companies that received an award. USAF leaders said the speed at which adversaries are moving prompted a stark departure from more traditional government contracting, which is why they developed a new paradigm to gain access to new technologies faster.
Building More Antennas at Faster Rates
The need to deliver mission-relevant capability at unprecedented speed and affordability is upon us, and L3Harris is responding by changing the way we design and build space antennas.
Customers want to build constellations of hundreds of satellites, whereas in the past, they may have been focused on a single satellite. We are evolving our designs and working on a new factory mentality supported by capital investments that are allowing us to ramp up production without compromising quality.
Our commitment to quality and agility impacts everything we do – from design to manufacturing. We are modernizing our world-class manufacturing facility through automation and digitization, and with higher-accuracy equipment. We’re looking to standardize various phases of reflector production in order to create repeatable steps that increase efficiency and minimize risk.
We are using a grid system to maximize space so that we can accommodate more builds. We are also investing in digital manufacturing and executions systems, which offer more efficient and effective ways to monitor and control data flow on the factory floor. These improvements will allow us to meet faster production schedules while ensuring quality performance and reliability.
With more than 40 years of space heritage, we build upon lessons learned so that we can support customer missions better, faster, and at a lower cost. The technical depth and breadth we have gained over the decades have helped us earn a reputation as the world’s leading space antenna manufacturer with more on-orbit successes than any competitor in the industry. These successes would not be possible without our culture of continuous innovation.
In the early 1980s, we delivered NASA’s first 5-meter antenna for their Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS), which represented the beginning of our space antenna enterprise. In 2000, we deployed two of our Folding Rib Reflectors, a unique design for smaller launch volume that increased antenna gain and improved performance. The reflectors provided fixed and mobile communication links to Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. Ten years later, we delivered the world’s largest commercial satellite antenna – 22 meters in diameter. In 2011, we took unfurlable technology to new frequencies with the industry’s first Ka-band space antenna.
We continue to innovate with industry-leading research and development investments that enable us to anticipate customer needs and stay ahead of the competition. We evolve as customer demands change, helping us to remain relevant and to reach significant industry milestones, like the production of our 100th unfurlable mesh reflector. With the speed at which the industry is moving today, we anticipate reaching the next 100 even faster than the first.
Delivering Next-Generation Antenna Solutions
Our space heritage is a key differentiator in the marketplace, and it helps shape designs that meet changing mission requirements. Recently introduced architectures, such as our Smallsat Perimeter Truss Reflector (SPT), Perimeter Truss Reflector (PT), and High Compaction Ratio (HCR) antennas, demonstrate our forward-thinking approach.
The SPT is our newest unfurlable mesh reflector that delivers best-in-class compaction, mass, and accuracy required to support smallsat missions. While the Perimeter Truss scales from 3 to 22 meters, the Ka-band SPT is offered in diameters up to 4 meters to fit smallsat form factors. SPT is one of the largest offset apertures in the industry that fits into modern Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA)-class smallsat configurations. The SPT is half the mass of our heritage designs and is compatible with reconfigurable beams and dynamic bandwidth allocation common on software-defined satellites, often referred to as flexsats.
The high-gain reflector boasts surface accuracies and radio frequency reflectivity for the most challenging Ka-band applications. Beyond broadband missions, the reflector is well-suited for synthetic aperture radar, radiometry, Internet of Things, and mobile satellite service applications. Because of its size, the SPT is optimized for high-production rates and can be launched as a constellation of high-performing satellites.
We introduced the Ka-band PT reflector last year. It offers low-stowed volume and height, low mass, and supports the most technically challenging communications and science missions.
The HCR is a high-accuracy, large-aperture antenna operating in X- through Ka-band frequencies. Optimized for smallsats, the 1-meter reflector and feed fits into a 2U volume, and a 5-meter version fits in less than a quarter of an ESPA-sized satellite.
Our SPT and HCR help expand the capabilities of high-accuracy, large-aperture antennas, which are increasingly being used to support commercial, research, and government missions.
In addition to our newest solutions, we offer our flight-proven heritage designs – the Radial Rib Reflector and Fixed Mesh Reflector (FMR). The low-risk, highly reliable Radial Rib Reflector is offered in up to 9 meters and features a controlled, repeatable deployment system. The FMR is the first mesh reflector with high- performance reflectivity through 50 gigahertz that supports high-frequency applications. The reflector is a low-weight alternative to large conventional solid reflectors.
The Most Accurate Surfaces in the World
All of our reflectors – new and flight-proven – are among the most accurate in the world due to our proprietary mesh technology. We produce the mesh in-house and carefully attach it to reflectors by hand. Once reflector panels are in place, we use high-accuracy tools to measure the surface performance until we’ve reached the desired frequency.
High frequency, like Ka-band, is a hot commodity today because it allows our communication satellites to achieve faster data rates. The growing popularity of even higher frequencies, such as Q- and V-band gateways, would free up the Ka user spectrum and further expand the capabilities of future satellites.
Space accessibility has a tremendous impact on everything we do, from living in our homes to feeling secure at work, to communicating with friends and colleagues around the world. To maintain the things we value in life as individuals and as a nation, we must continue to innovate, design, and manufacture with a sense of urgency. We must also strengthen our supply chain, expand supplier capacity, and improve supplier quality programs that enable us to meet faster production rates.
The combination of these efforts will ensure that we successfully support our customers’ missions and achieve success for many decades to come.