Getting a (robotic) hand on smallsats


Engineers work on DARPA’s SEEME satellite at Raytheon’s Space Factory in Tucson, Arizona. Credit: Raytheon

An experimental U.S. military satellite hitching a ride on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket this fall aims to let troops call up timely imagery of their locations with the push of a button. Known as Space Enabled Effects for Military  Engagements, or SEEME, the project is the first step toward what officials at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency envision as a constellation of low-cost satellites that would deliver overhead imagery within 90 minutes of pressing a “See Me” button on handheld devices troops already carry in the field. But even before SEEME launches, the project has won praise from the most forward-looking corners of the national security space community for how the satellite was tested and assembled.

As part of a $1.5 million contract from DARPA, Raytheon built the SEEME satellite at its highly automated factory outside of Tucson, Arizona.  It’s the first satellite the site produced that will go to orbit and Raytheon officials hope the satellite will lead to new business from other government agencies and commercial companies.

Since 2002, the 4,400-square-meter site has built 60 guided kill vehicles that launch atop the Missile Defense Agency’s ground-based interceptors to shoot down ballistic missiles. SEEME is the Tucson factory’s first satellite but Raytheon says it won’t be the last.

“Smallsats share a lot of heritage with missiles,” said Thomas Bussing, Raytheon’s vice president of advanced missile systems. “They share many of the same kind of seekers and sensors, guidance computers. There’s a lot of overlap. They also leverage the very affordable packing we use to do missiles and use that across the line.”

Raytheon has spent millions of dollars updating the Tucson facility which it calls the Space Factory. The site features the usual clean rooms and custom workspaces plus a long line of robotic runways that are increasing reliability, and bringing down costs for some parts of the assembly process.

Specifically, Raytheon has introduced more automated testing for satellite components, leading to less variability in results and fewer instances of expensive rework. In addition, an abundance of cameras and microphones track engineers’ every move, helping to narrow the root of problems when they arise.

The Tucson factory is designed for maximum flexibility. On any given day, depending on production needs, Raytheon can build a missile, missile seeker, kill vehicle or a small satellite weighing tens of kilograms.

The technique has been admired within the Defense Department, from leaders at DARPA and the Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space Office. At a July 2015 breakfast, Col. John Anttonen, the director the advanced systems and development directorate at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, pointed to the factory as an example of an approach to production the Air Force could rely on to build satellites in the future.

Low-cost, quickly replaceable satellites with modular components are expected to be a hallmark of future Air Force constellations. The bucket-size SEEME, for example, weighs all of 23 kilograms and is expected to last only about 90 days in orbit.