Bethesda-based aerospace manufacturer Lockheed Martin has played a role in space operations since the 1950s, when the company’s rockets were used to launch some of the first American satellites into orbit.
Today, satellites are still a critical part of Lockheed’s business, and the firm announced Wednesday that it plans to spend $350 million building a satellite production facility at the company’s Waterton Canyon campus near Denver In doing so, Lockheed hopes to reassert itself in a sector that has become a lot more competitive.
Space “is a big place, but we plan to be a leader in it,” said Rick Ambrose, executive vice president for Lockheed Martin’s space systems business.
Lockheed’s business is being challenged by a cadre of well-heeled newcomers that have pledged to populate the lowest rung of Earth’s orbit with “microsatellites,” which are often just a few meters wide.
The global telecommunications investment firm SoftBank is spending $1.7 billion to combine Luxembourg-based Intelsat with Richard Branson-backed OneWeb, creating a satellite behemoth that seems singularly focused on smaller, cheaper models. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is working to launch 4,425 small satellites into low Earth orbit by 2024.
These competitors contend that their microsatellites can provide a better signal in more places.
It remains to be seen how Lockheed will fare. It specializes in taking on the kind of big projects that few companies have the scale to complete. The satellites Lockheed makes circle the planet much farther outside the Earth’s atmosphere, giving them a broader view of the Earth’s surface. That means they have to be much more powerful, entailing longer production times and more expensive components.
Plans for the new facility call for manufacturing, assembling and testing centers that are large enough to keep multiple production lines running at the same time, allowing the facility to produce large satellites as it is churning out smaller ones.
Lockheed executives are hoping that that will allow them to compete in the small-satellite market at the same time that they keep legacy production lines going, all under one roof.
“We’re trying to develop a capability to handle any direction the market moves,” Ambrose said.
The 266,000-square-foot factory will be easily the biggest satellite production facility in the company’s manufacturing arsenal, executives say. It will include a thermal vacuum chamber, meant to simulate the harsh environment of space, that will be used to test fully assembled satellites before they are attached to rockets. The facility is to include a stock of 3-D printers to produce the satellites’ simpler components.
Construction of the facility is underway, and the firm hopes to be finished by 2020, pending federal government approvals that include the clearance needed to conduct highly classified work.