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Three rules for building a megaconstellation

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This text initially appeared within the June 10, 2019 situation of SpaceNews journal.

Six years in the past, Planet started launching smallsats for a constellation that at the moment numbers 140, making it the biggest business satellite tv for pc system on this planet.

By the top of this yr, Planet might not maintain that title. OneWeb and SpaceX, which started deploying broadband satellite tv for pc constellations in low Earth orbit this yr, each stand to surpass Planet’s complete by the top of 2019.

OneWeb, which in February launched the primary six of at the least 648 deliberate satellites, goals to have 150 satellites in orbit by yr’s finish by launching 35 satellites at a time when its launch marketing campaign resumes in late summer season or early fall.

SpaceX, which launched its first 60 Starlink satellites Could 23 and has two to 6 extra launches on faucet this yr, expects to quickly be launching 1,000 or extra satellites yearly because it seeks to deploy almost 12,000 broadband satellites.

“In a yr and a half, possibly two years, if issues go properly, SpaceX will most likely have extra satellites in orbit than all different satellites mixed — a majority of the satellites in orbit shall be SpaceX,” SpaceX founder Elon Musk stated final month.

Planet’s constellation, comprised principally of camera-equipped cubesats, differs from SpaceX’s and OneWeb’s fledgling constellations, which can use greater satellites for broadband connectivity.

However OneWeb, Airplane and SpaceX declare related priorities with regards to constructing satellites in far higher numbers than anybody has finished earlier than.


Planet’s motivation for fast satellite tv for pc manufacturing stems from its origin as a startup beholden to the whims of launch suppliers who set launch dates primarily based on greater, major clients and never secondary cubesat payloads, in accordance with Chester Gillmore, Planet’s vp of spacecraft improvement and manufacturing.

“We knew we needed to very, in a short time change and make issues adaptable,” he stated throughout a Could 28 panel dialogue on agile manufacturing and launch hosted by The Aerospace Company in Merritt Island, Florida, not removed from the place OneWeb is constructing its satellites. “We needed to adapt as a result of we had these set launch dates that we didn’t management.”

In September, Planet opened a producing facility in San Francisco that may produce as much as 40 satellites every week. Gillmore stated Planet doesn’t face the identical launch pressures it did early on, however discovered to worth being able to shortly construct satellites regardless.

“We’ve overbuilt capability and our capabilities to such an excellent extent not as a result of we’re going to construct 1000’s of 1 factor, however as a result of we would like to have the ability to construct on the fee of 1000’s to construct many, many smaller batches of 20 to 25,” he stated. “Each time we go right into a manufacturing cycle, we are literally constructing new builds.”

OneWeb and SpaceX, in distinction, goal to construct 1000’s of satellites — as much as 2,000 for OneWeb and as much as 12,000 for SpaceX.

David Goldman, SpaceX’s director of satellite tv for pc coverage, stated the corporate is taking classes discovered constructing rockets and making use of these to its Starlink constellation.

“Fast iteration is the DNA of the corporate… a number of that has to do with [the fact] that we design and manufacture a lot of the parts ourselves,” he stated. It’s very built-in. If the technicians who’re placing issues collectively discover one thing that may be improved, they’ll go straight to the engineer who designed it and that may be mounted on the fly. That’s how one can iterate as shortly as we will do at the moment.”

OneWeb is counting on a big base of suppliers for its constellation, together with Ruag, Teledyne and Sodern, however can also be integrally concerned within the manufacturing of its spacecraft by way of OneWeb Satellites, a 50-50 three way partnership it fashioned with Airbus Defence and House.

Chris Winslett, OneWeb Satellites program director, stated the three way partnership’s new $85 million manufacturing facility Florida’s Exploration Park is about as much as construct two satellites a day when it begins full-scale operations this yr.


Constructing satellites by the handfuls, a whole lot, or 1000’s nonetheless requires numerous human labor, however producers say they’ve discovered locations the place automation is smart.

SpaceX is importing monitoring information for satellites and house particles from the U.S. Air Pressure’s Mixed House Operations Middle and different sources, Goldman stated, so Starlink satellites can autonomously fly round hazards — not not like the self-driving electrical automobiles Musk is constructing at Tesla.

Winslett stated OneWeb plans automated processes for flying its satellites, since scaling up the quantity of people that fly a number of geostationary satellites to handle a constellation of a whole lot would require “a small village.”

OneWeb Satellites’ purpose-built manufacturing facility in Merritt Island, Florida, has already began restricted manufacturing, with closing commissioning underway, in accordance with OneWeb Satellites CEO Tony Gingiss. The manufacturing facility is a part of Exploration Park, a business house hub positioned on almost 300 acres of NASA-owned land exterior the gates of Kennedy House Middle. Credit score: OneWeb Sattelites

Winslett stated OneWeb views automation as most helpful in take a look at campaigns and for spacecraft flight operations. OneWeb desires automation to scale back human-induced errors, he stated, however to not change human staff totally.

“We consciously didn’t design our manufacturing facility such that it was only a bunch of robots placing satellites collectively,” he stated. “We did need the human particular person there to make the judgments.”

Winslett stated a bonus of constructing a big constellation is that the spacecraft, as they enter operation, present sufficient collective telemetry to do “massive information analytics” to glean classes that may then be included into manufacturing.

“You’re truly growing a statistically significant quantity in a short time,” he stated. “Analyzing the info, searching for developments, searching for areas the place we will make changes, both eliminating exams or rising exams — these are areas the place automization is extra prevalent for us.”

Gillmore stated Planet in the end strives for “as little bodily automation as we will,” and to introduce any automation “as late as doable.”

Counting on automation too early dangers cementing a flawed process into manufacturing that might be very troublesome to undo, he stated.


Megaconstellation builders don’t need errors with their satellites, however stated they’ve discovered to not anticipate perfection, both.

Goldman stated SpaceX sought with its first massive Starlink launch to ascertain that failures with one thing so new shouldn’t come as a shock.

“We aren’t going to have one other launch till we watch these for a short while to see what works and what doesn’t, after which we will construct that into the following fashions to be sure that they’re higher,” he stated. “I feel the most effective factor you are able to do is simply be trustworthy with the general public and inform everyone what you might be as much as, and don’t say you’ll have 100 % reliability in the event you can’t accomplish that.”

“You must be keen to set a tradition the place you might be keen to fail early and be taught from it,” Winslett added, highlighting SpaceX for instance. “Now we have to put these expectations on the market and let individuals perceive that it’s OK to fail. It’s OK to have a difficulty or a mistake, be taught from it, appropriate it and transfer on.”

Planet’s philosophy is that failures ought to occur “as shortly as doable to seek out out what works and what doesn’t work,” Gillmore stated. He attracts a line, although, between planning for failure and pursuing it.

“Failure isn’t the objective,” he stated. “While you spend some huge cash designing one thing, launch it into house, and it doesn’t work, it’s very dangerous. Once we say be considerably tolerant to failure, the thought shouldn’t be that we expect it, it’s extra about taking a distinct strategy to mission assurance than was beforehand finished.”

That strategy consists of focusing laborious on getting important programs like cameras and antennas proper, Gillmore stated.

“We don’t have to completely floor qualify each single subsystem,” he stated. “We are able to floor take a look at the issues which might be required and security important.”

Gillmore stated that for each 20 spacecraft Planet launches, it budgets for 2 to be know-how demonstrators. That approach, the corporate can consider new gear in house reasonably than “overtest” every spacecraft on the bottom.

Gillmore stated he’s trying ahead to seeing launch prices proceed to say no so Planet can prototype extra know-how for future generations of satellites.

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