Inside the Space Factory
Lab gears up for next missile-destroying "kill vehicle"
On the outskirts of Tucson, Ariz., one of the cleanest factories in the world runs a one-of-a-kind operation: creating rocket-propelled “kill vehicles” that hunt down and destroy ballistic missiles in space.
Here, workers in clean-room suits assemble optics and sensors so sensitive that they can pick out warheads against the blackness of space from hundreds of miles away. Others install tiny thrusters so accurate they can steer into the path of a missile moving at 17,000 mph.
This is Raytheon’s Space Factory, a workshop that is like no other in the world. Cleaning crews constantly Swiffer the floors and scrub surfaces with alcohol wipes. Pumps replace the air in some labs every 27 seconds.
“We have some very key people here and key infrastructure that doesn’t exist anywhere else,” said Sharon Walk, director of Raytheon’s Space Systems Operations.
The Space Factory and its clean room technologies have helped make Raytheon the world leader in space-based kill vehicles. The company has decades of experience building interceptors for the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system and the Standard Missile-3, and it is now expanding the Space Factory to develop the next generation of kill vehicles.
In the factory, stainless steel is the metal of choice for the myriad of test chambers used to simulate the chill of space. Sensors throughout the building constantly measure air pressure, humidity and microscopic particles of dirt.
Even the dirtiest areas are cleaner than an operating room, and technicians use tools that go through a special rinsing process. Workers with colds aren’t even allowed in the clean rooms for fear they might sneeze and cause contamination.
Raytheon opened the factory in 2002 after the U.S. government tasked the company with building a system to counter the rising threat of long-range ballistic missiles. It designed and rapidly deployed an exoatmospheric kill vehicle prototype two years later.
Kill vehicles carry no explosives; they destroy missiles by steering into their paths and slamming into them.
The prototype model is now flying on the Ground-Based Interceptor missiles used by the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system. The company has continued to refine its designs, and the kill vehicle now used on the Standard Missile-3 incorporates these advances.
“Over time, we were able to leverage knowledge from the prototype and expand that into the SM-3 product line, producing three variants,” Walk said. The latest SM-3 variant achieved five-for-five intercepts last year.
Cleanliness is key to Raytheon’s success because a kill vehicle’s optics and sensors have to be absolutely clear to pick out fast-moving targets against a field of stars, said Vic Wagner, director of advanced kill vehicles for Raytheon Air and Missile Defense Systems.
“We’re measuring photons. That’s how tight we are,” he said.
Makers of computer chips only have to protect flat wafers, but the Space Factory has to keep three-dimensional objects clean – a far more difficult task, Wagner said.
“A clean room in the semiconductor industry is not designed to build kill vehicles,” Wagner said. “We’ve built the infrastructure of air handling and test equipment that’s second to none.”
The factory is divided into three cleanliness classes. Only four to five people are allowed in the most restrictive zone.
But machinery and cleanliness aren’t the only unique things about the Space Factory. The people who work in the labs have spent decades perfecting interceptor technology, a specialty shared by no other company in the world. In Tucson they rub elbows with the world’s foremost missile designers as well.
“It truly is a fertile ground and springboard for sharing knowledge,” Walk said.
To prepare for the next-generation kill vehicle, the company is expanding the factory by almost 6,500 square feet and adding an even cleaner “microenvironments” area. The new addition will include more automation and is expected to be finished by year-end.
“We invented the business of building kill vehicles to defend the free world, and we’re now ready to employ our collective knowledge, expertise and infrastructure to take it to the next level,” Walk said.