When the business side of the launch campaign ends, the engineering begins. In the previous post, we showed how a microsatellite finds a launch through Spaceflight. Engineering is very involved in this process. However, once a launch is found and the contract is signed, engineering takes the lead, guiding the launch campaign from contract signature to launch day.
As soon as the ink dries on the contract, engineering swings into full project management mode. For the example microsatellite we’ve discussed in the previous post, this project would begin with the developers providing details about the satellite. Spaceflight engineers ask about the mass, volume, other technical details and any hazards on the spacecraft. The basic physical properties allow us to decide on the proper separation and deployment system. Identifying the hazards allow us to provide design constraints (from the launch service provider), so that the spacecraft is safe to launch on the chosen vehicle.
Two months after contract signing, Spaceflight engineers have assimilated the spacecraft information into a single document, the interface control document. In the case of the example microsatellite, the document would say that a 24” Motorized LightBand was chosen as the appropriate deployment system, and it would explain how the satellite should attach to it. Additionally, this document has the testing required by the launch vehicle provider and any design requirements. If our example microsatellite has propulsion, the document would have required safety factors and any additional testing needed. This document is presented at the Kickoff meeting, where Spaceflight engineers typically travel to the developer’s site and get a look at the spacecraft for the first time.
As the clock counts down toward launch, the standard process for Spaceflight engineers becomes…less standard. Each spacecraft has its own unique issues and schedule. Guiding the launch campaign is a balancing act of moving schedules, re-defining requirements and troubleshooting issues. For example, our microsatellite could have an issue with its electrical system and be delayed while the issue is solved. Spaceflight engineers would then work with the developers to re-define the schedule, so that the spacecraft could be delivered by launch time. While spacecraft developers are in charge of their own spacecraft, Spaceflight engineers support the design and testing of the satellite as much as possible, in order to keep the launch campaign on track.
Just eight weeks before the satellite launch, the real fun begins – integrating the satellite to the launch vehicle. Throughout the launch campaign, Spaceflight engineers works with the launch vehicle provider and satellite developers to refine the integration process and verify the satellite is ready for launch. At eight weeks before launch, the satellite is deemed ready and sent to Spaceflight for integration. In the case of the microsatellite, Spaceflight would connect the satellite to the SHERPA ring and run some tests. Then everything would be shipped to the launch site. Spaceflight engineers travel to the launch site to support integration. The microsatellite would be attached to one half of the separation system and then carefully connected to the other half (and the SHERPA ring), using a crane. This delicate process would be overseen by the Spaceflight engineers, who finally get to see the final results of the typically two-year launch campaign.
Engineers at Spaceflight support satellites from initial contact to launch. This covers documenting requirements, calculating ground passes, organizing meetings, troubleshooting problems and culminates with integrating the satellite onto the launch vehicle. Our mission management job only concludes when the satellite is in orbit, beginning its own mission.