Small satellite work ramps up

Diminutive devices will give troops real-time battlefield pictures

small satellite

With more than 60 years of missile manufacturing expertise, Raytheon’s Tucson team has adapted its assembly lines to build small satellites like the one shown in orbit over the earth in this illustration.

At a specialized factory in the Arizona desert, technicians are building satellites small enough to be carried by hand.

Roughly the size of a five-gallon paint bucket, they weigh about 50 pounds; tiny compared to large weather or surveillance satellites, which can weigh as much as a school bus and cost up to $1 billion. 

Raytheon has more than 60 years of missile manufacturing expertise, and has adapted its assembly lines to build these detailed satellites at less than one hundredth of the cost of their larger kin.

“With our automated production lines, Raytheon can produce large numbers of these highly reliable small satellites quickly and affordably,” said Dr. Thomas Bussing, Raytheon Advanced Missile Systems vice president. “Delivering on-demand, space-based, tactical information to ground troops in remote locations could help save lives on the battlefield.” 

A technician handles the casing for a small satellite in Raytheon's Tucson factory.

The company recently delivered the first of these satellites to the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency under the “Space Enabled Effects for Military Engagements,” or SeeMe, program. The new small satellite will allow soldiers on the ground to see real-time pictures of the battlefield, which current military or commercial satellites cannot provide.

DARPA plans to launch a SeeMe satellite aboard a SpaceX rocket, delivering it to low Earth orbit later this year. Following a successful launch, soldiers on the ground will evaluate the satellite’s performance for several months.

Eventually, a SeeMe constellation may comprise several types of small satellites, each lasting one to five years before de-orbiting and burning up, leaving no space debris and causing no re-entry hazard.

The market for small, “disposable” satellites is estimated to be worth $7 billion over the next several years. And while the product is new, designers were able to draw on Raytheon’s deep experience in building satellite sensors and the control systems for them.

The satellites are being built by Raytheon's Missile Systems business. Its Intelligence, Information and Services division built the ground command station. And colleagues from the company's Space and Airborne Systems business contributed their knowledge of radiation and thermal analysis.

Dan Cheeseman, a chief architect and engineer for Raytheon’s Operationally Responsive Space Programs, said he postponed retirement to work on the project.

“This country has a romantic engagement with space,” Cheeseman said. “If you’re an engineer, you are always thinking about space. That frontier excites people, and we have many young engineers who love working in this area.”

robotic satillite arm
The small satellite assembly lines use robotics to increase reliability and decrease cost.


Published On: 03/04/2015
Last Updated: 11/05/2018