Navigating the Satellite manufacturing Space Locally

Our final site visit today was a satellite manufacturing company called Space Systems Loral (SSL).  SSL is the leading manufacturer of commercial and governmental satellites in the US.  They produce satellites to provide consumers with access to everyday commodities such as direct to home television, broadband internet, and map and GPS services.  Our speaker was Jason Iverson who is a Department Manager with 15 years of experience at SSL.  Jason covered topics ranging from the production cost and time of satellite production to the history and lifespan of the satellites SSL produces.

Jason began by asking the group if any of us knew what the first US commercial satellite was named and who it was deployed by.  As you could guess we had no idea and Jason told us that the satellite’s name was Courier 1B and it was produced by SSL.  This gave us an idea for how long this manufacturer has been around and the experience this company has with satellites.  According to his figures, SSL makes up 38% of the entire satellite market and that beats out top competitors like Boeing, Orbital ATK, and Lockheed Martin.  And producing these satellites is no light endeavor, each satellite bought is an investment of over $200 million and it’s the reason so many tests have to be done for satellites.  I was really curious to know how satellites that have run their lifespan were disposed of, so I asked him.  Apparently, all the satellites that have orbited Earth (~20,000 miles away) and no longer do are just further outside Earth (~40,000 miles away), by using the remaining fuel to push them outside of the orbit, because space has more than enough space to hold the satellites.

After the interesting talk with Jason, he took us on a 90 minute tour throughout the facilities on SSL’s campus.  But, before all that began we had to put on our lab coat and bouffant.  We toured the numerous preparation stages for a satellite and we learned the importance of testing and re-testing and re-testing.  It is important for the company to be entirely confident in the parts’ abilities to perform while in space and the amount of testing SSL does to ensure that goal is met.  We visited various chambers including a thermal vacuum chamber that would put the satellite under the most extreme of conditions to ensure that the hardware holding the satellite together is sound and ready to be deployed.  Another testing area we visited was the sound testing chamber where they would surround a satellite with a tower of speakers 30 feet high and blast it with sounds the human ear can’t sustain.  This is to, again, ensure that all parts of the satellite are ready to endure some of the highest pressures and heats and noises while on its way to orbit Earth.

Jason was a very insightful speaker and had a complete specialized expertise on satellites which provided us with some great information that we couldn’t have found anywhere else.  SSL was an unbelievable place to visit and it is an experience I will carry with me for many years to come.