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NASA Hires SSL to Research Satellite Manufacturing in Space

By | August 29, 2018
International Space Station ISS

Could satellites be built on space stations like the ISS? NASA wants to know (image by NASA)

NASA has contracted SSL to perform a study exploring how commercial habitats in space, like the International Space Station (ISS), could be used to build satellites and “unlock new capabilities and business paradigms” to support a growing U.S. space economy. In a statement, SSL said that transferring spacecraft building processes to space, “eliminates the constraints of launch vehicle volumes and schedules and the need for spacecraft to withstand the harsh conditions of launch. It allows for more simple and capable system designs that can be fielded more rapidly and economically.”

NASA is curious to see how the ISS and other commercially deployed space stations could reinvent satellite manufacturing and make it more cost-effective and efficient for specific missions. The study contract represents another step in a steadily growing technological and business relationship between the U.S. space agency and the the Palo Alto-based Maxar Technologies satellite manufacturing subsidiary.

Earlier in August, SSL was selected to help build and test a flight system component designed by NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a future mission that will study the Psyche metallic asteroid. SSL’s in-orbit servicing and assembly capabilities are also contributing to a variety of NASA studies and missions including the robotic conversion of rocket upper stages into commercial habitats and the Dragonfly on-orbit satellite assembly program, which was demonstrated in 2018.

“Today’s focus on commercial activity in space is undoubtedly accelerating innovation,” said SSL Government Systems President Richard White. “At SSL, we work closely with NASA to explore concepts that implement next-generation business models to stimulate private demand for commercial human spaceflight. Bringing commercial and government innovation together will be a powerful driver of capabilities.”

In mid-August, NASA named SSL as one of its six U.S. industry partners under a $44 million program that aims to develop 10 tipping point” technologies that “significantly benefit the commercial space economy,” as well as support lunar lander, deep space rocket engine, and other future NASA objectives.  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the primary mission of the partnership program would be  to enable technologies that would help NASA meet its exploration goals. “While these key technologies will support NASA’s science and human exploration missions in the future, these awards are yet another example of NASA’s commitment to our nation’s growing commercial space industry today,” Bridenstine said in a statement.

In addition to building satellites in space, SSL is also printing satellites on the ground. SSL produced a 3D-printed satellite,Telstar 19 Vantage, for satellite operator Telesat. The satellite was launched this past July and now provides communication services over Canada, South America, and the Caribbean. SSL has been integrating a variety of 3D printed structural components on its satellites for the past few years.