How LeoStella uses software to track spacecraft hardware
TUKWILA, Wash. – LeoStella’s satellite factory has tons of hardware spread over more than 22,000 square feet, but the secret ingredient in its manufacturing process may well be software.
“What you see here is the physical layout,” Brian Rider, chief technology officer of LeoStella, told us during a tour of the satellite company’s headquarters in Tukwila, just south of Seattle. “But what’s a little harder to see is the digital process behind it.”
LeoStella, a joint venture owned by BlackSky Holdings and Thales Alenia Space, relies on a workflow management system that tracks satellite components throughout design and manufacturing. Employees use a digital dashboard to make sure every part is in its place at the right time.
“It’s really not just a paperless process, but it’s a digital and smart manufacturing approach,” says Rider. “We can record all of our manufacturing details. We can control statistical processes and understand where we can make our systems less restrictive or more restrictive to improve product quality. “
The facility itself is designed to maximize efficiency in producing up to 40 satellites per year, including two satellites per month for the BlackSky Earth Observation constellation. The interior of a standard building in a suburban business park was extensively renovated when LeoStella took over the space in 2018.
“Few companies have the chance to step back and start from a blank sheet of paper, and really think about all the aspects that make satellite production possible, efficient and affordable,” said Rider. “That’s what we did at LeoStella.”
Two of the 120-pound (55-kilogram) satellites built by LeoStella for BlackSky were lost a week ago when a Rocket Lab launch failed, but more are underway. One of BlackSky’s satellites sat on the factory floor during our visit, ready to be packed and shipped to its launch location.
Meanwhile, workers across the cleanroom were checking out one of Loft Orbital’s satellites, which will eventually accommodate payloads from several clients, including the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Still other satellites were in various stages of assembly.
LeoStella can adapt its standard satellite design to support a wide range of orbital tasks. Each satellite usually consists of four decks, similar to the decks on a ship. The propulsion deck is at the bottom, with the avionics deck, payload deck, and antenna deck stacked on top of each other.
Each spacecraft is assembled on a material handling device that can be rolled into a bay to complete connections and test its built-in performance. There’s also a room-sized vibration chamber where the satellites can be shaken on three axes to ensure they can withstand the stresses of launch and deployment.
Avionics software is checked on “flat” workbenches that are dotted with electronics. And in another corner of the building, a thermal test chamber can subject components to hundreds of degrees of heat, or cool them down to freezing conditions they might face in space.
LeoStella’s job isn’t finished when the satellites are launched. Because it has such a close corporate relationship with BlackSky, BlackSky’s satellite performance data can be sent back to Tukwila for analysis.
“We do a huge amount of in-orbit validation, where we take the in-orbit behavior and test the data and correlate it to our predictions to make sure that we are correctly modeling the performance and behavior of the satellites,” said Rider. “Everything is interconnected to this digital backbone that we have created.”
Rider said LeoStella can refine the production process halfway.
“We will build a number of satellites, and if there is an opportunity to improve the technology – maybe an improvement in the supply chain, or new capabilities – we are able to fit them into our line. production strategically to evolve this capacity, ”he said. “This also applies to our flight software.”
Speaking of evolution, LeoStella also hopes to evolve her abilities. Rider said the company’s workforce currently numbered just over 40 employees – and most of them were able to work remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to the company’s digital platform .
Now, LeoStella is considering new programs, including the development of a third-generation BlackSky satellite that is expected to play a key role in the U.S. Army’s Tactical Geospatial Intelligence Prototype Program, or TACGEO.
“We plan to hire another five or six by the end of this year, and maybe more as our business grows,” Rider said.
Someday a 22,000 square foot satellite plant might not be big enough. But LeoStella has a plan for it.
“That’s part of the reason we chose this industrial park here,” said Rider. “There are two large buildings, and each building is just over 80,000 square feet. So there are many opportunities for us to grow. “