How the Seattle area became a hotspot for satellite builders — and what comes next
Seattle may not be the best place to put a launch pad, but the region is turning into one of the most prolific satellite production centers in the United States.
“How many of you know that Washington state is actually one of the world’s leading satellite manufacturers?” Roger Myers, a longtime aerospace executive who is currently president-elect of the Washington State Academy of Sciences, asked during a session of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region’s Economic Leadership Forum on Monday.
In terms of sheer mass and revenue, Colorado-based Lockheed Martin and Boeing’s satellite operation in California still have bragging rights.
But when you tally up how many satellites have been launched in the past couple of years, it’s hard to beat SpaceX’s satellite development and manufacturing facility in Redmond, Wash.
Last week, SpaceX added another 60 satellites to its nascent Starlink broadband constellation, bringing Redmond’s count to 122. That includes the 60 satellites launched in May, plus two prototypes sent to orbit last year.
Next, add in the satellites built at LeoStella’s factory in Tukwila, south of Seattle. Four Seattle-built Global satellites are already in orbit for BlackSky’s Earth observation constellation, and LeoStella is due to build at least a dozen more.
Finally, consider Amazon’s plans to put thousands of Project Kuiper satellites into orbit for its own broadband mega-constellation. Although Amazon hasn’t shared information about its manufacturing plans or deployment timeline, it’s worth noting that there are more than 140 jobs being advertised for the project. Most of those positions are in Bellevue, Wash., with just a smattering in California and Virginia.
Why Washington state? Part of the reason has to do with the declining cost of satellite hardware. Commercial electronics have become smaller, cheaper and more powerful over the past couple of decades.
“What that did is, it reduced the barriers to entry, and it enabled the creation of a much broader sector around the world,” Myers said.
Software development also has a lot to do with it. Thanks to Microsoft, Amazon and all the spin-offs those companies have spawned, the Seattle area has become a global center for cloud computing, machine learning, data analytics and other technologies that turn out to have space applications.
That’s a big reason why SpaceX put its satellite development center in Redmond rather than in Southern California, the traditional home base for aerospace ventures (including SpaceX itself).
“There’s a huge amount of talent in the Seattle area, and a lot of you guys, it seems, don’t want to move to L.A.,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told a crowd of engineers in Seattle when he announced the move in 2015.
The Seattle area’s decades-long aerospace legacy is another factor: There’s a century’s worth of airplane-building expertise at Boeing’s Puget Sound facilities, and a half-century worth of rocket science at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Redmond facility. The operation traces its lineage to Rocket Research Corp. — which was founded in 1959 by former Boeing engineers in Seattle and moved to Redmond in 1968.
The Redmond operation touts the fact that it’s built thrusters for every U.S. interplanetary mission, including the landing propulsion systems for NASA’s Mars probes. “The path to Mars goes through Redmond,” said Ken Young, general manager for Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond.
“This week we’ll celebrate 20,000 engines produced at our facility,” Young said. “If you think about it, that’s a pretty remarkable number.”
The character of the rocket business has changed dramatically since the early days. Young estimated that the proportion of his business devoted to commercial space missions has risen from 20 to 60 percent, just in the last decade or two.
Most of the commercial space sector is focused on telecommunications and Earth observation, and both those types of applications are due for rapid expansion in the years to come. When it comes to Earth observation, multispectral imaging will be able to facilitate new approaches in fields ranging from crop and forest management to firefighting.
“Today, you can get an image once a day, basically,” said Curt Blake, CEO and president of Seattle-based Spaceflight, which manages launch logistics for small-satellite operators. “What we’re seeing with a lot of our customers are very close to 60- to 90-minute lead times, coming down to 30 or 40 minutes. So if there’s a place over the Earth you need a picture of, you can get it very fast commercially.”
Meanwhile, on the telecommunications side, the mega-constellations that are in the works from SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb promise to keep small-satellite builders in business for many years to come.
But there are potential downsides to satellite proliferation: Having so many spacecraft in the skies above could interfere with astronomical observations — and raise the long-term risk of space traffic jams. A close call in September, involving a Starlink satellite and an European wind-measuring satellite, highlighted the potential for orbital smashups.
“There’s no space traffic management system,” Blake said. “We just need to have a really good space traffic management system.”
European and U.S. officials are working on the issue, but the time frame for developing a global tracking system could well be limited. “There are going to be collisions, and there will be a lot of debris created … Once orbits have those kinds of problems, we will have to stay out of them, and they won’t be available for operational spacecraft for potentially decades,” Myers said. “That’s a really big deal. There are people who feel that the mid-orbit ranges will be unavailable … starting about 10 or 15 years from now. So the problem’s got to be solved.”
Will satellites become the bane of our earthly existence, or the basis for a 21st-century space economy? The leaders of the Seattle area’s satellite industry may play a crucial role in coming up with the answers.
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