How to Build a $100 Million Satellite

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Just in the portion of the sky you can see, hundreds of satellites are passing overhead at any given time. You often can’t see them, but they’re there making GPS work, taking images of earth, providing communications, even spying for governments. These satellites are some of the most expensive single objects that can be made.

If you took at tennis ball sized chunk of the Hubble Space Telescope, it would be worth over $1,500. Modern full-scale, commercial grade satellites cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars. They’re just incredibly complex objects that require years to construct. Many of the satellites flying over you right now, though, started their life here at SSL in Palo Alto, California.

SSL is a commercial company owned by Maxar Technologies specializing in satellite and spacecraft construction. They’ve built spacecraft that are current in orbit for everyone from DirecTV to national governments. If you’ve ever watched satellite TV, listened to satellite radio, or used satellite internet on a plane, there’s a decent chance you’ve directly used one of the satellites they built here in their factory. But let’s say you want to buy a satellite from SSL, what do you do?

Well the first thing you do is you pick up the phone and call us but the next thing you should do is check your bank account to make sure you have enough money to buy a satellite. If you don`t have enough money, play Canadian online casino games and get rich.

Satellites, depending on what kind it is and where it’s going can cost tens of millions of dollars up to several hundred million dollars. Once a customer makes that first phone call to SSL, there will then be an ongoing back and forth between them and the customer. Essentially, the customer will tell SSL what they want their satellite to do and SSL will come back to them with a price.

Eventually, if all goes well, they’ll sign a contract. That’s exactly what happened a few years ago between SSL and Telesat—a global satellite company headquartered in Canada that owns and operates a fleet of satellites. Their satellites are used to broadcast signals, whether it be TV, Radio, or Internet, for their customers—satellite TV, radio, and internet providers. In this case, Telesat needed a satellite to provide additional capacity over the busy North Atlantic region and so they came and signed a contract with SSL to build their new satellite—Telstar 19 VANTAGE. Soon after contracts were signed, work began on designing the satellite.

In that process the designers usually pull designs for some more generic aspects from previous projects and then modify them to suit the particular job. The length of that process can vary widely based off how complex the satellite is but throughout the process, as soon as they’ve locked a design in, they’ll begin ordering parts. SSL builds about half their components themselves and orders the other half from other companies. The decision on whether to order or build in-house usually comes down to performance. “There are certain components where, depending on what the requirements are we build higher performance components than suppliers, some of them our suppliers build better components than we do.” Over the years SSL has looked at what it’s good at and what other suppliers are good at and made the decision on what to order based off that. For example, one of the components that SSL builds are the antenna reflectors.

These are what actually direct signals down to earth and each of them is custom designed for the region that the satellite will cover. “So this is, for example, for Telstar 18 Vantage, you can see here that these are these reflectors that would be sticking out on the side and it’s used for sending signals back to earth and all those little dots you see on there are for photogrammetry so they’re used to make sure that the surface is actually exactly as designed so we have these cameras that take pictures of these and all the dots to make sure that it was build according to the design.” The satellite these antenna reflectors eventually went on, Telstar 18 Vantage, the sister satellite of Telstar 19 Vantage, will launch in late August 2018 and soon after will go into service providing data services over Asia and Oceania so the antenna reflector was carefully crafted to provide signal over populated areas and busy flight and maritime corridors while not wasting resources on providing service to areas the company already has coverage for or that would have little demand such as to the south of Australia. About 9 to 15 months after ordering, the majority of the ordered components will start rolling through the door and then the bulk of the assembly process begins.

This process is too complex to go into detail on, but essentially they’ll first build the major elements separately. One group will assemble the propulsion system and framework of the satellite while another will assemble the payload, what the satellite is actually built to carry whether that be an advanced camera or a communications system, while yet another group will assemble the super-light and efficient solar panels that will power the satellite when in orbit. The assembly of the different major components will take a few more months and then they’ll start to compile those different major components together over a period of a few more months. Each component is tested independently before and while being installed on the satellite, but once they’re all pieced together there begins an incredibly rigorous phase of testing the satellite as a whole. When buying a satellite from a trusted manufacturer like SSL, the customer is buying reliability so there can be no compromise on testing.

They need to be sure that the satellite will actually survive launch and work in space and the best way to do that is to just simulate launch and space. There are three major factors that could harm a satellite—vibration, temperature, and sound. The vibration comes as a satellite launches in a rocket so they test that their satellites can survive launch. “When you put these satellites on top of a rocket in the payload faring they experience a lot of vibration loads in the x, y, and z so we’re able to simulate those with this vibration table. It has a baseplate there and you can shake it in this direction, in this direction, or in this direction so it does in all different directions to simulate the environment and make sure that it’s all operating.” The satellite on the table in testing here is Telstar 19 Vantage itself. This here is just one of many tests where they literally just shake the satellite and see how it responds.

They only last about 60-90 seconds each because that’s how long the satellite will experience vibration during launch until the rocket reaches the upper atmosphere. They’ll also test to be sure that their satellites can survive the vacuum and temperatures of space. “So, what you see up there, this big blue pumpkin looking thing like Cinderella’s carriage, that one is called our thermal vacuum chamber, we like to call it the blue pumpkin, and what we use it for is to simulate the thermal vacuum of space so we’ll go down to the vacuum levels of space, you know 10-10 TOR, and we will turn on the payload on different parts of the satellite to make sure that everything’s functioning properly when you put it in space and in addition to that, once it’s under vacuum, we have these thermal panels in there to simulate the hot and cold environment. So like, when you’re facing the sun and the satellite gets really hot, we bring those temperature to bear and then we make it really cold when it’s facing away from earth in an eclipse type situation and make sure everything’s functioning properly.” Lastly, launch is very loud to the point that the acoustic energy could actually damage a satellite so they make sure it doesn’t by simulating the launch environment through bombarding the satellite with acoustic energy with speakers.

There are a myriad of other tests performed before the satellite is given SSL’s stamp of approval, but once it’s ready, the satellite does, of course, need to get to the launch site. The customer decides which launch provider to use whether it be SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Arianespace, or another so the satellite might only need to go as far as Vandenberg Air Force base a four hour drive away or as far as Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan. The launch site is also partially decided based off what sort of orbit the satellite is going into.

If a satellite is going to orbit in a north-south direction over the poles they want to launch in that direction so they want to launch from a site with open water to the north or south both for safety and, for some rocket designs, so stages of rockets can fall into the ocean throughout the launch process. SpaceX, for example, therefore uses Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for their polar orbit launches as it has the Pacific Ocean directly south. For geosynchronous orbits where satellites travel from west to east at the same rate as earth rotates they want to launch in the same direction as the satellite will orbit.

For that reason they can’t launch from Vandenberg as it has land to the east so SpaceX uses the launch pads on Cape Canaveral, Florida as they have the Atlantic Ocean to the east. In the the case of Telstar 19 Vantage, it was going in geosynchronous orbit in order to stay consistently over it’s service area so SSL needed to get the satellite all the way across the country to Florida. No matter where a satellite is going, it gets packed up into one of these specialized shipping containers.

For travel to closer launch sites within the US they’ll often drive. They’ll put the container on a truck driven by trusted oversize vehicle drivers, have a lead vehicle checking for obstructions, a trailing vehicle watching to make sure nothing goes wrong, and for longer drives a motorhome so drivers can swap out and rest while still moving. If the launch site is far, such as the ones overseas in French Guyana, in Kazakstan, or even the further ones in the US such as Cape Canaveral they’ll fly the satellite over in an Antonov cargo plane.

Satellites arrive to their launch sites at least a month before their launch as there’s plenty of last minute preparation to do. They have to perform additional testing to make sure nothing was damaged in transport, fuel it up, and mount it in the rocket. Once that happens, though, there’s a period where there’s really nothing for SSL to do.

“As they go through the process of the countdown there are a number of places where we’re asked to confirm that we’re ready for launch, then they launch us and at that point we can no longer monitor our satellite until we’re off the launch vehicle so for about a half hour we’re hoping that the launch vehicle guys are doing everything ok and they usually are.” In the case of Telstar 19 Vantage, the customer entrusted SpaceX with the responsibility of getting their satellite to orbit so on July 22nd, 2018 at 1:50 AM a Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral carrying SSL’s latest creation to space. The launch of this satellite actually made the record books as it is the heaviest commercial communications satellite to ever be entered into service at 15,600 pounds. On that early morning in July, the Falcon 9 gained altitude as it flew south-east over Africa, then 32 minutes and 40 seconds after launching, 358 miles above Mozambique, Telstar 19 Vantage was released from the rocket and gently pushed forward in the first moments of it’s 15 year long orbit of earth.

At that point, the work’s not done for SSL, though. Their job is not just to build the satellite but also to enter it into service in space. Once the satellite is deployed, SSL will look for its signal and establish communications. “We start commanding the satellite, we tell the satellite what we want it to do, we start to get the satellite into a safe position after launch, we’ll deploy solar arrays so we can start generating power, we’ll start to activate everything on the satellite and we’ll put the satellite in the safe condition so that the crew can start to get some rest.” Over the next ten days there’s a process of firing the satellite’s engines to raise it from the altitude of 350 miles where it was deployed to 22,000 miles where it will stay for its service life.

There’s then another two to four weeks of testing to make sure everything survived launch and then, finally, after years or work, it’s time to hand over the satellite to Telesat, the customer, so they can put it online and start operating it commercially. At that point, after years of work the satellite can finally itself be put to work. One of the aspects of how satellites work that I found most interesting to learn about when I filmed this video was on how orbits work. The science of how you can make an object orbit at such a consistent speed that it will stay still over one particular area of earth is fascinating and if you want to learn all about how that works, Brilliant teaches you exactly that in their classical mechanics course. Of course there’s more than just orbits, this course provides a great overview of physics and with Brilliant, you’ll actually understand the concepts rather than just learning them.

They specialize in teaching the intuitive principles behind concepts so that you learn the why. They also have plenty of other fascinating courses on topics like astronomy, logic, and gravitational physics—a course that teaches how planetary orbits work. All in all, Brilliant is a great place to learn and best of all, you can try Brilliant classes for free by signing up at brilliant.org/Wendover and then, if you decide to upgrade to their premium account, the first 200 to do so at that link will get 20% off.