Before your satellite can be integrated into a launch vehicle, it has to get to the launch site. Transporting a satellite is a little more complicated than sending a package via UPS. It’s just one of our areas of expertise that our customers rely on.
“Throughout our years of launching with domestic and international launch vehicles, we always take care to ensure the successful and safe delivery of our customers’ valuable spacecraft.” – Jeff Roberts, Senior Mission Manager, Spaceflight
Here are a few of the aspects to think about when planning a move for your satellite. The list here is not exhaustive, so if you have specific needs or requirements, give us a call and we’ll help you figure it out.
It may seem obvious, but the basics are critical. You must know the exact dimensions and exact weight of your spacecraft. The shipping documents must be displayed externally along with the necessary stickers, such as “This Side Up” or “Hazardous Materials” or other appropriate designations. You must coordinate for pick up and receiving of the spacecraft – this also means your team (or people who are trained and experience with handling this fragile cargo) need to be present at all locations where the places the satellite is being loaded or unloaded.
Packaging matters. You don’t want to spend millions on a satellite, only to risk it all with a less-than-stellar container. We work with some great third parties who are experts on this and will custom build the shipping case for your satellite. For instance for air flight, they can build in a pressure relief valve, so that when your satellite is in an unpressurized cargo bay, the walls of the case don’t bow outward, only to contract and cave in upon landing. The relief valve will release air on takeoff and allow it back in when you land, keeping your satellite undamaged.
For extra security, a shock tab can be mounted on the container. It’s a gauge that will activate when an impact level exceeds a certain level. If activated, you know that the satellite will require an additional test to ensure it was not damaged by the shock event. The visible shock tab is also a great way to let all the package handlers know to use extra care when handling.
There are extra steps involved when you’re transporting your spacecraft to another country for launch. The very first step here is making sure you have the appropriate export license in place. These vary from country to country: we can help you make sure your i’s are dotted and t’s crossed. Most satellite owners will tell you their biggest concern is at customs, particularly when paperwork is not in your native language. Important steps can get lost in translation. You need an expert to make sure all paperwork is in order.
Another license you may need is a hazardous materials license, if your spacecraft has a propulsion system that uses fuel which falls under the hazmat designation. Note: the driver of the truck carrying the satellite may also need a hazmat endorsement, depending on the amount of fuel it contains.
Once the spacecraft has arrived at the commercial airport, it’s critical to have people meet it to closely watch the container being unloaded and loaded. Having paid inspectors results in better handling and less jostling. (We can also do this for you.)
In addition to air pressure changes in flight, there are other issues with moving your spacecraft to a different climate for launch. We look at humidity and temperature, and make sure that those are accounted for during transport.
We make sure the satellite is double bagged, and has a desiccant inside to draw moisture. The inner bag has a nitrogen purge in it to eliminate water vapor. When the launch is going to be in a hot climate, and planes can sit on tarmacs for hours, we make sure we have a refrigerated cargo truck ready to go to load the spacecraft and transport it to the spaceport. No one wants condensation impacting your satellite in transit –particularly if it’s an earth observation satellite with lenses and mirrors that need to be absolutely clear.
Final thoughts: Like most things, experience matters when shipping. Don’t go for the lowest cost shipper. We only use trusted companies that have experience moving sensitive equipment like spacecraft, and will get it there unscathed.
Getting to orbit is a journey that starts long before launch. We’re the experts at all aspects of the process and we can help you get there.