How to Build a Satellite in Three Days

Walking the line between efficiency and quality

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Small satellites used to be all the rage. Now, to be really cutting edge, they have to be fast, too, as in fast to build, test, and launch.

"Operationally responsive" is military-speak for fast: Field commanders want spacecraft that can return images and other data quickly from some hot spot they'd never even heard of six months ago (say, the coast of Somalia). The trouble is, most satellites take years to plan, build, and launch into orbit.

Chuck Finley of the Pentagon's Operationally Responsive Space office thinks that ordering a satellite should be as easy as ordering a computer from Dell. So to prove his point, he plans to build a fully functional, 330-pound satellite in just three days, starting this morning.

His "customer" will be the attendees at the 7th Responsive Space Conference, who are meeting this week at a hotel in Los Angeles. At around 11:30 a.m. Pacific time on Tuesday, Finley will take the group's satellite order. You want imaging and UHF communications? Fine. How much power do you want with that? Then he'll relay the information back to a team of six engineers at the ORS workshop at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, who'll be connected by webcam to the conference, and who will immediately set to work, says Finley, "like gerbils in a cage."

He figures that by Wednesday morning, they'll have already assembled the modular spacecraft bus and added the requested components, using standardized parts and standard interfaces (just like Dell does). Now comes the interesting part. The satellite builders in New Mexico will ask the customers how much testing they want. Do the vibration test, but skip the vacuum test? No problem. Finley intends for this part of the demonstration to be instructional as well as practical. Sometimes good means good enough, and the conference-goers, a savvy bunch of buyers, will help the engineers decide, in real time, which tests can be eliminated without sacrificing too much quality.

When he first started planning the demo, Finley thought the satellite could be built, shipped to Los Angeles, and presented to the conference goers before they wrapped up on Thursday afternoon. Now he'll settle for getting it built and tested in time, and showing off the results via webcam. As the starting gun approaches, he admits to some trepidation. "Could be a nightmare," he laughs.

Then again, it's supposed to be a learning exercise. So wish the team luck. And follow their progress on this blog.

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