Orbital in Gilbert leads new path in climate research - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Orbital in Gilbert leads new path in climate research

June 29th, 2018 development
Orbital in Gilbert leads new path in climate research

By Wayne Schutsky, Staff


Orbital ATK’s satellite manufacturing facility in Gilbert is on the ground floor of global climate research as the company puts the finishing touches on the JPSS-2 satellite system for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The JPSS, or Joint Polar Satellite System, satellites are part of the government’s next generation of polar-orbiting environmental satellites, which will aid in reducing death and property damage caused by major storms and environmental hazards.

The satellites will help government agencies predict major storms, like hurricanes and tornadoes, and can aid in the assessment of other hazards like drought and forest fires.

In 2012, a polar-orbiting satellite allowed the government to predict Hurricane Sandy’s path through New Jersey and New York more than five days in advance.

NOAA-20, previously called JPSS-1, was built by Colorado-based Ball Aerospace and Technologies and was the first in the JPSS series. It launched in November 2017.

“The sophisticated technology aboard NOAA-20, as well as the recently launched GOES-16 and GOES-17 satellites, will allow our forecasters to better warn of potentially dangerous weather conditions days in advance,” Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said in a press release. “This will help save lives, property and ensure that businesses can minimize disruptions from such events.”

The government first awarded Orbital ATK the JPSS-2 project in September 2015, and it is finally entering the testing phase this summer. That process will take about two years, and the JPSS-2 spacecraft is scheduled to launch in late 2020 or early 2021, said Rick Kettner, Orbital ATK Gilbert site manager.

That launch will not be end of the JPSS program at Orbital ATK in Gilbert, though.

NASA recently exercised an option for two additional JPSS satellites to be built by Orbital ATK over the next decade. Named JPSS-3 and JPSS-4, the satellites are expected to be completed in 2023 and 2026, respectively.

The total contract for all three spacecraft is estimated at $460 million.

In the meantime, the Orbital team will focus on preparing JPSS-2 for operation.

Engineers and technicians on the ground in Gilbert have to integrate the five different monitoring systems onto JPSS-2 and make sure that the spacecraft can handle the environment in space before it is ready for launch.

That testing and preparation is not a quick process.

Hundreds of Orbital ATK employees will have worked on the JPSS-2 system by the time it reaches orbit.

“It takes a village to put one of these together,” Kettner said.

The JPSS-2 spacecraft is currently undergoing mechanical testing in Gilbert. The team then will begin integrating five different monitoring tools and conducting a range of electronics and software tests in a massive clean room the project shares with Iridium NEXT satellites, which provide voice and data coverage to satellite phones.

“You want to make sure those tools are compatible as you’re building up,” Kettner said.

The JPSS-2 craft also will undergo a range of rigorous tests to ensure it will survive the rigors of launch and the harsh environment in space with its tools intact.

“It will be tested in three basic environments,” Kettner said, noting that the spacecraft will be exposed to electromagnetic interference, extreme temperatures and extreme noise and vibrations.

“In between each of the three tests, we will run function tests to make sure everything is still doing what it is intended to do,” Kettner said.

For the vibration tests, the satellite will be mounted to a large shaker table and vibrated in a variety of ways.

“We want to make sure no parts are going to fall off during launch,” Kettner said.

The spacecraft also will be subjected to an extreme amount of sound energy – 140 to 150 decibels, which is enough to shatter bones in the inner ear – to simulate the environment during a launch.

To tests the affects of temperature, technicians will roll the satellite into a thermal vault, which looks like a massive bank vault, to test the affects of extreme heat and cold on the system. The satellite will spend about a month in the vault, which uses nitrogen to drop the temperature to minus-100 degrees Celsius.

In space, the satellite will orbit Earth 15 times per day and will see swings in temperature of plus- or minus-100 degrees Celsius. It has a collection of heaters and radiators to help it regulate temperature as it transitions from facing the sun to facing deep space.

Following the test and preparation period, a team from Orbital ATK will travel with the satellite to support the launch. The company may provide some support post-launch, though Kettner said the government typically handles operations.

“At that point, we are the parents that hand the kids off to the babysitter,” Kettner said.

The launch – which typically takes place three to five years after the project began – is a big deal for Orbital employees who have spent a good deal of their careers working towards that goal.

In the same vein, it can be difficult for them to watch the satellites come out of the sky when their lifecycle ends. The JPSS-2 satellite has an on-orbit design life of seven years.

“It’s bittersweet to see them come down,” Kettner said.

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