Inside the clean room: How Lockheed Martin is building tomorrow's satellites - CNET

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This communicative is portion of Road Trip 2021, CNET's sum of the propulsion and propulsion to manufacture much products successful the USA.

In a monolithic cleanable country successful the mediate of Denver, a elephantine outer sits dormant, waiting for its travel into orbit. Engineers with Lockheed Martin's Space part determination astir its hulking body, indistinguishable from 1 different successful their look masks and full-body protective suits.

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They perch implicit the spacecraft connected a ample forklift, taking laser-guided measurements. They shuffle underneath the satellite's belly, triple-checking the presumption of wires and instruments. They thin up adjacent to its mammoth metallic facade, delicately adjusting tiny components by arsenic small arsenic one-thousandth of an inch. It's similar watching dozens of Mike Teavees, shrunk down and moving astir the interior workings of a Wonkavision TV set. 

I've been Wonkafied myself -- gaffer-taped into a achromatic cleanable suit, implicit with clip-on booties, 2 masks and, hilariously, an orangish hairnet that tells everyone I'm from overseas. (Getting entree to Lockheed facilities, including this cleanable room, requires a afloat information credentialing process. US citizens are dressed successful each white, but overseas nationals, including Australians similar me, request to beryllium easy identifiable portion on-site. I don't caput the other flair -- aft all, 1 does privation a hint of color). 

I've been fixed uncommon entree to spot the GOES-T, a monolithic upwind outer Lockheed Martin Space is gathering for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA. The outer is destined to participate geostationary orbit, a spot much than 22,000 miles supra Earth's surface, and cod immense amounts of information astir upwind present connected Earth and successful space.


The GOES-T outer wrong the cleanable country astatine Lockheed Martin Space headquarters.

John Kim/CNET

"We're getting 30 times the information down connected this outer arsenic they did connected the erstwhile satellites," says GOES-T's lawman programme manager, Alreen Knaub. "We're doing abstraction weather, prima upwind and Earth weather."

After its launch, scheduled for February 2022, the outer volition way meteorological events successful precise detail, mapping lightning strikes, pursuing occurrence lines and tracking utmost upwind successful existent time. All this information beamed down from abstraction could perchance beryllium life-saving, helping scientists and meteorologists amended foretell earthy disasters and support each of america present connected the ground. 

You can't beryllium excessively cautious erstwhile it comes to gathering a spacecraft and preparing it for launch. From the archetypal fabrication of the circuit boards wrong the outer to the last testing, the squad astatine Lockheed Martin Space is acrophobic with precision astatine each signifier of the build. This isn't "measure twice, past chopped once." This is measurement countless times with lasers, reposition, measurement again, repeatedly torture test, amusement it to the woman successful the orangish hairnet, past instrumentality your 1 accidental for launch.

After all, this isn't your modular portion of physics hardware. If a outer breaks down, it's virtually intolerable to get it repaired 22,000 miles supra the Earth.


Engineers get up adjacent to the metallic thermal reflectors connected the GOES-T's surface, which are designed to bespeak the sun's radiation successful space.

John Kim/CNET

Life-saving data

The GOES-T is the 3rd outer successful a household of 4 Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites utilized by NOAA to way upwind from debased Earth orbit. Being geostationary satellites, these spacecraft are designed to enactment successful a fixed orbit successful clip with the Earth's rotation. GOES-T is acceptable to enactment stationed supra North and South America, bringing successful information for the Western Hemisphere. 

(A enactment connected naming: The radical of satellites is known arsenic the GOES-R family. Each outer has an alphabetical sanction present connected Earth earlier being assigned a fig successful space. The GOES-R and GOES-S satellites launched successful 2016 and 2018, respectively, and are present known arsenic GOES-16 and GOES-17. After it launches, GOES-T volition go GOES-18. The last GOES-U outer is inactive successful the aboriginal physique stages and is expected to motorboat successful 2024. So it's inactive a fewer years earlier it really GOES, truthful to speak.) 


The GOES-T's star array. 

John Kim/CNET

GOES-T has instruments to way space and prima upwind activity similar star flares, changes successful the magnetosphere and radiation hazards. All person the powerfulness to impact not lone the planet's weather, but besides electronics and communications instrumentality present connected Earth, and successful the International Space Station. In fact, 1 of the tasks of the GOES satellites is to supply warnings to astronauts connected the ISS astir incoming star enactment that could impact their operations oregon interfere with their instruments.

Imagery taken from the GOES-16 (GOES-T's predecessor) showing Hurricane Ida approaching the seashore of Louisiana connected Aug. 29, 2021. 


The GOES-T is besides packed with instruments for tracking Earth weather, similar the Geostationary Lightning Mapper, which tin representation lightning each implicit the world, and the Advanced Baseline Imager, which takes images of the clouds, ambiance and aboveground of Earth.

"We tin not lone way wood fires; the Advanced Baseline Imager tin measurement their vigor signature, truthful we tin spot if they're intensifying," says Knaub. "So erstwhile you spot the occurrence menace going up, often that's based connected information from this satellite. ... It's a large instrumentality successful predicting wood fires, managing wood fires and knowing wherever to nonstop the firefighters."

It's this benignant of information that has a immense interaction connected our day-to-day lives, adjacent if we don't recognize it. During emergencies similar Hurricane Ida, which battered the Gulf Coast implicit the past summer, the information brought down from GOES satellites was life-saving. 

"[Hurricane Ida] was a Category 2, and they knew based connected the thermal representation of the Gulf that it was going to rapidly intensify into a Category 4 erstwhile it deed that Gulf weather," says Knaub. "And truthful we were wrong 2 hours of predicting erstwhile it would deed onshore mass, and wrong conscionable a fewer miles of wherever we said it was going, 60 hours out. Which is unheard of."

From small things, large things grow

Accuracy successful the entity starts with accuracy connected the ground, and for the squad astatine Lockheed Martin Space, that begins with the tiny components that powerfulness the satellite. 

Across the roadworthy from the cleanable room, I'm fixed a sky-blue laboratory overgarment and shown astir Lockheed's Space Electronics Center. This is wherever electrical engineers manufacture, assemble and solder the circuit boards, modules and boxes for the spacecraft. 

"We absorption connected powerfulness and avionics, which is going to beryllium the beingness and the brains of a satellite," says Angelo Trujillo, 1 of the engineering adjutant specialists astatine the SEC.


Spools of tiny circuit committee components hold to beryllium dispensed by 1 of the automated machines successful Lockheed Martin's Space Electronics Center.

John Kim/CNET

Though galore of these components were erstwhile soldered by hand, overmuch of the fabrication is present done with the assistance of automation. Walking astir the SEC lab, I spot machines programmed to solder circuitry, and robotic arms whir arsenic they laic down components connected circuit boards. Gone are the electrical engineers identifying tiny resistors based connected their color-coded stripes -- instead, agelong spools of plastic-sealed components are coiled up similar movie reels, acceptable to beryllium loaded into the machines for automated assembly. 

"It's a batch amended for proficiency and efficiency; we get the aforesaid results each time," Trujillo tells me. "Where hand-soldering it would instrumentality a batch longer. What we tin bash successful an hour, it would instrumentality a week oregon 2 to effort and hand-solder."

(Automation doesn't conscionable prevention time, it besides helps debar costly failures. Lockheed Martin declined to uncover however overmuch the GOES-T outgo to build, but the full GOES-R programme has a budget of $10.8 billion.) 

After they permission the SEC, the electronics and circuit boards travel unneurotic with different components successful an assembly process that sounds similar a elephantine crippled of Lego, albeit with overmuch higher stakes.


Components connected the GOES-T outer stay covered close up until motorboat to support the delicate instruments inside. 

John Kim/CNET

"[The GOES-T] really starts retired arsenic a clump of portion parts, and the portion parts are assembled into boxes, and past the boxes go what they telephone subsystems," says Knaub. "So conscionable similar your location has an aerial conditioner, a heater, this outer has the aforesaid thing. It has a powerfulness system. It has a thermal system. It has a guidance and navigation power system. And each that gets enactment together. ... It truly is complex."

Before they're each assembled into the last satellite, each of these systems and components has to beryllium torture-tested to guarantee it tin past successful orbit. The thought is to enactment retired the kinks connected Earth truthful they don't crook up arsenic problems successful space. 

The components are subjected to vibration investigating that simulates the shaking of a rocket motorboat (the past happening you privation is simply a outer that breaks earlier it's adjacent reached space). Then they're tested to spot if they'll withstand the chaotic somesthesia fluctuations they'll acquisition successful orbit. 

For that, Lockheed has its ain abstraction simulator of sorts: a vacuum-sealed tube, astir the size of a tiny car, known arsenic a thermal vacuum chamber. Components are placed wrong this TVAC unit, the doorway is sealed, and past engineers gully it down to a vacuum earlier moving done a rhythm of blistery and acold temperatures. 

Then, erstwhile those components are built into the satellite, each that investigating happens again: mechanical situation tests to simulate launch, much thermal vacuum investigating and, of course, precision investigating of communications equipment.

"We really blast it with physics electromagnetic waves to marque definite it sees each the imaginable interference it could see," says Knaub. "You cognize however you get static connected your radio? You don't privation that coming crossed successful the spacecraft."

Eye successful the sky


After launching, the GOES-T outer volition enactment successful geosynchronous orbit implicit North and South America.

Lockheed Martin Space

Once the GOES-T aces its tests, it'll blast disconnected from Space Launch Complex-41 successful Cape Canaveral, Florida, connected an Atlas V rocket. It'll jolt done the ambiance to articulation a swarm of more than 3,000 different satellites zooming astir successful debased Earth orbit. And past it'll clasp its presumption straight supra the Americas, hopefully for years, sending technological information backmost to Earth. 

If the GOES-T outer is palmy successful its mission, it'll undoubtedly prevention lives, bringing successful much upwind information successful little clip and helping officials foretell the way and strength of utmost upwind events similar hurricanes and wildfires.

But chances are astir of america won't truly cognize it's there. It'll softly beam down information that we yet spot connected upwind apps, oregon successful updates connected the evening news. It'll go 1 of the thousands of human-made sentinels orbiting our planet, 24 hours a day, helping america enactment connected and alive.

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