With its focus on U.S. government programs, Lockheed Martin Space Systems (LMSS) Co. hasn't been a serious contender in the commercial satellite market for more than a decade. Well-known for its work on the Pentagon's AEHF, MUOS and SBIRS military communications missions, Lockheed recently lost its status as preferred satellite-builder for SKY Perfect JSAT when the Tokyo-based fleet operator selected rival Space Systems/Loral to build its next three JCSat communications birds.
Michael Hamel, a retired U.S. Air Force general who runs LMSS Co.'s Commercial Ventures unit, admits the company has lost ground to rival satellite manufacturers in the U.S. and abroad. But he says the division is planning a comeback, in part through a technical refresh of its venerable A2100 satellite bus, which will offer a more flexible and affordable platform that can be produced in less time.
He spoke with Aviation Week & Space Technology's Paris Bureau Chief Amy Svitak in May.
AWST: Lockheed Martin is midway through a major update to the A2100 spacecraft bus. What are you doing to lower costs and reduce production time?
Mike Hamel: Consolidation in the 1990s resulted in the creation of the Lockheed Martin commercial communications systems organization in Newtown, Pa. In the early 90s there was the creation of this product line, the A2100, which was very modern, high performance, really lean manufacturing and other attributes we sort of take for granted these days. But it became the basis in the decade of the 90s for all the programs that Lockheed Martin is well-known for today, the AEHFs, MUOS, SBIRS and the like. Over time, as the whole commercial satellite market really blossomed, a lot of Lockheed Martin's attention has been on its government programs and customers, and we've lost some of our market leadership in the commercial satellite business. So two years ago LMSS Co. and the corporation said we need to go through a complete refresh of that product line and redouble our efforts to establish a strong leadership position in the commercial satellite business.
So we're about half to maybe 60% of the way through what we refer to as the A2100 technical refresh. This is a comprehensive update of all the underlying technology and subsystems with the A2100 platform, going back in with the propulsion system, electrical power system, structures, payloads, avionics, flight software, antennas and other payload elements to come up with new building blocks, new ranges of options and performance, but all based on a very common core design that has a high degree of commonality. What we really want is to offer a very scalable and modular, but very standard and high-value product line.
One of the things driving this is a strong focus on reducing parts and drawings, individual subsystems, reducing the amount of touch labor, really driving down overall cycle time. So it's both a combination of technology refresh of the actual platform, but also all the underlying engineering and manufacturing so we can achieve the goal of the cost reduction of 35% and cycle-time reduction of 25%. We think this will serve the commercial satellite community, but also serve as the basis to offer the government a very high-value, affordable platform, both with U.S. and international markets.
What are the power and size options you plan to offer with the new A2100?
We're really targeting the platform and refresh to span a broad range of payload and mission applications. On the lower end we'll be at the medium class, with down to 6-7 kw payload power applications, and on the upper end we'll be up to the 16-20 kw level. Interestingly one of the things we're bringing forth that is going to help facilitate this is one of the power system offerings will have a flex-solar array, which is basically a blanket onto which solar cells are mounted and literally it's very compact in terms of how it stores. And the history behind this is it dates to the original Milstar program, which Lockheed Martin was responsible for, as well as the flex arrays on the International Space Station, which likewise Lockheed Martin builds. At the same time, we're offering more conventional solar array panels. The object is to have standard designs rapidly tailorable to the particular configuration that best suits the mission needs and business cases of our customers.
You'll also have an option with all-electric propulsion using Hall effect thrusters for spacecraft orbit raising.
Yes, we have concluded the Hall current thrusters offer the best technology for electric propulsion.
Having said that, we'll offer a range, from purely chemical to all-electric to any kind of hybrid in between. We also like to point out that to date the only actual mission that has used electric propulsion and Hall current thrusters for raising up to GEO orbit was the AEHF satellite. For those looking to maximize payload capability, the electric propulsion and orbit-raising will offer them an option, but admittedly at the price of taking longer to reach final orbit, and taking longer to generate revenue.
This technology will be able to get a satellite to orbit more quickly than, for example, the Boeing 702SP, which uses a xenon-ion propulsion system (XIPS) that is lighter weight and offers more room for payload mass, but which needs six or eight months to get the satellite to geosynchronous orbit?
Yes, but because Hall current thrusters can generate substantially more thrust, depending on the configuration, we like to say it's about half the time to get to a final mission orbit with the Hall current thrusters.
Boeing is also offering a dual-launch option with the 702SP, notably with the low-cost Falcon 9. Will Lockheed Martin offer something similar?
We know for commercial as well as government operators, a significant part of the overall equation is the cost of launch and being able to split the cost between two spacecraft is very attractive, irrespective of what the launcher is. We're taking a little bit different, more innovative approach for this and we're not fully prepared to publicly talk as we're still in the process of looking at the multitude of configurations and launchers and the like. But our approach is one that is going to, we believe, offer something real attractive, there'll be far less fuel wasted, structure and accommodations and a lot more flexibility in how they can be packaged for a variety of different launchers. The interesting part about the A2100 refresh is we really have flexibility as a core design principle to be able to leverage the very common subsystem configurations and the short cycle time and the entire supply chain benefits that come with a common platform offering.
What challenges are you finding as you retool A2100 engineering and manufacturing?
One of the things we're doing across the entire LMSS Co. is to move into the digital age with model-based engineering, where from the very earliest design requirements down to product def and 3D digital definition all the way to doing additive manufacturing much of what we've done to date is also ben able to incorporate in our planning for integration and test 3D representation so that we can actually work through procedures, cable and harness routing, test processes and procedures, all digitally based upon the actual 3D prouduct and systems definition, and so as a result, instead of doing things through trial and error literally, when the technicians finally put hands on hardware they'll have done it through 3-d immersion if you will, well in advance and have worked through procedures. We think this is one of the huge next waves ind riving down cycle times in cost in all manufacturing, and we're really embedding this as right from the foundation level up in the A2100.
One of the things that really is an advantage is a lot of these techniques have been pioneered in other parts of Lockheed Martin programs, the F-35 and the like, where lean manufacturing and application of digital technology all the way through the lifecycle has been a real advantage to be able to leverage that across the corporation.
As you go through the refresh, are you bidding these improvements in what you're offering?
Initially there was this notion that we were going to have the L.A. car show introduction of the new and improved A2100. In fact what we're doing is offering various subsystems and configurations incrementally. It's the customer that will drive what configurations go to the marketplace. We are already offering in our various pursuits underway different levels, some more minimal, in other cases there's a great appetite to incorporate some of these new technologies, particularly in areas like the payload, where our customers make their money, and we want to make sure we're offering them the leading technology, whether that be in reprogrammable channelizers or ultra-high bandwidth for ultra-high definition TV. So we're offering a menu, and as the technologies and subsystems go through design and qualification, in our discussions pre-procurement we'll see if those will meet the business case desires from a cost and performance standpoint.
We really have committed on this, not only the breadth of the tech refresh but we are taking this all the way through the design, development, test and qualification, so that instead of going out and trying to secure customers on the promise that if they will bill it paid that we will build, instead we are actually fully flight qualifying all the subsystems and in fact going all the way up to the entire spacecraft level with full CDR and the like so we will have proven technology and subsystems when we go to market.
What do you see in the pipeline in terms of potential new business?
There's a very rich set of operators out there with a diversity of applications, all the way from fairly steady traditional replenishment of C and Ku-band systems all the way to cutting edge high throughput system to wide-band services for infrastructure development in more sparsely populated areas to internet and mobile communications and the like. Frankly, this is all being driven by the much larger information explosion happening around the globe. One of the things we see that is an absolute imperative is if commercial space information systems and technology are going to be competitive on a global basis, we have to collapse the cycle time. Because as many of our customers point out their biggest competitors are terrestrial providers, so we have to make space competitive in that much larger global infrastructure marketplace.
What commercial projects are you focused on right now?
Our two most prominent right now are Jabiru for Newsat in Australia and the GEOEYE-2 satellite for DigitalGlobe. You've written stories recently about Jabiru, so you know the status of that, but this is an exciting new company that has big ambitions and a lot of possibility, so we're working closely with them and hoping to offer future solutions and platforms that might help them grow their business.
As the new A2100 evolves, are you going after new contracts? MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates says you're not bidding much these days.
I always find it interesting to hear what competitors say about us. We are very judicious about the various opportunities we pursue. The entire Lockheed Martin corporation is going through a large metamorphosis, if you will. We're putting a lot of emphasis in international markets and sales. We created the Lockheed Martin International organization a year ago with the intent to focus on major traditional and emerging market areas where we're going to establish a much stronger presence, not just for selling Lockheed Martin products, but creating workforces and relationships and opportunities in places you wouldn't be terribly surprised by – Japan, Korea, the Middle East with UAE and Saudi Arabia, in Australia, U.K., Canada, Israel. We're looking at those as regional presence as well as very strong partnerships. Not surprisingly, we tend to focus in areas where we think there's going to be greater promise. The Asia-Pacific region is one of growing in importance, huge demand and expanse of information technology, and likewise in the Middle East.
In addition, in the area of remote sensing, Lockheed Martin has a very rich history with commercial imagery satellites dating back to the very first of these ,and we're very active likewise in refreshing our product lines, and have intent to be able to offer for many international customers very affordable but very high performance options in the future.
Yes, but Europe is the leader in terms exports of remote-sensing satellites to emerging markets.
There's no question that the U.S. has leading technology for imagery satellites, but likewise others are establishing their position in the marketplace in the smaller to medium class, and even some of the emerging micro-satellites. But our experience dates to the very beginning, the IKONOS satellite, the first commercial imager offered. In addition to the basic satellite performance and technology, the other thing that we bring to this is a very strong systems role in terms of being able to integrate the full ground command and control, the processing, and to be able to provide user-friendly systems that have been honed over a couple of decades now of application around the globe. We see our role as bringing a strong systems solution and at the end of the day maybe other customers, which tend to be mid-tier users around the globe, we're finding them very much attracted to our product as well as our reputation.
On remote sensing, any chance you'll get another shot at the Falcon Eye spy satellite contracts for UAE?
Certainly you've tracked this, there've been public statements in the recent past by U.S. government officials indicating an openness to offer higher-performance commercial imagery products, potentially systems, and frankly that has been one of the things that has limited some of our ability to compete globally. Some of our competitors, particularly as you point out in Europe, have not had as many constraints relative to the kind of products they can sell. It's part of what I think is a growing recognition that it's in our national interest to promote these advanced technologies, these very competitive space systems, and that we'll actually see some expansion and more progressive policies relative to what we can go to market with. I'm very confident with a more supportive environment – whether that be export control or remote sensing licenses – that we actually have products that are going to be very competitive on an international basis.
What are you going after this year?
We are going to be very aggressive this year. We see a variety of remote sensing opportunities with various international customers and partners, so we are very intent on winning our fair share -- and perhaps more -- of what is going to be competed this year by the commercial operators. We are very serious about aggressively moving back into the commercial space market, both in the communications sector as well as in remote sensing, and we're making full commitments in terms of our investments, as well as how we're leveraging across the broader organization.