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How are satellites manufactured?

Satellites are complex pieces of equipment.

Small-scale projects can require months or years to finish, and standard telecommunications satellites take at least two years to properly construct and test.

The satellite manufacturing process is a thorough one, involving checks and verifications to ensure such an expensive construction will survive a trip into space, perform its role properly, and generally return on the potentially huge investment that satellite development can demand.

What are the materials used in making a satellite?

Satellite manufacturing requires high-grade materials and a careful balance of cost, weight, and function.

A satellite should be light enough to be launched into orbit, and the essential components included in its makeup depend on its mission.

Space can also be a hostile environment for equipment to function in. Radiation, extremes of temperature, and debris travelling at incredible speeds can all present problems that may damage, interrupt, or outright destroy expensive satellite components.

For that reason, metals are an obvious choice of material that meets the various temperature and hardiness requirements for space missions, yet there are really only two that are suitable for use in terms of their weight and economy.

While titanium is a metal that can be useful for satellite manufacturing, aluminium tends to feature in more builds due to its relative cheapness and lighter weight.

Aluminium, the metal that is used for so many domestic appliances and food containers, is too weak to meet many demands on its own.

Instead it is combined with others into alloys that bolster its strength. Aluminium alloy, for instance, helps protect the windows of the International Space Station from impacts, and normal levels of radiation in space have not been found to adversely affect aluminium alloys used in spacecraft. Aluminium alloys are common too for satellite frames, though research may uncover stronger and cheaper alternatives to replace them in future.

Kevlar, a high-strength synthetic fibre most famously used in bulletproof vests, also provides good shielding for satellites and provides great heat resistance. Carbon fibre also sees use in satellites for similar reasons; its properties making it both strong and lightweight, and therefore perfect for launching into – and surviving – orbit.

Dry materials like Teflon are useful as lubricants, because liquids will likely boil in the vacuum of space. This means that moving parts can be kept working smoothly without fear of essential maintenance.

Thermoplastics are also used for a variety of parts like gaskets, bearings, insulators, and other small components. It is important that thermoplastics have low outgassing values, meaning they will not behave adversely and weaken once put into a vacuum.

What are the three main components of a satellite?

Not all satellites have the same exact components, though the major differences between them will be in the payloads they bear for their respective missions.

Satellites will typically need some consistent components such as communications, power, and propulsion (though this is not always present in miniaturised spacecraft like CubeSats). However, formats such as the CubeSat have led to standardised satellite hardware that makes them simpler and quicker to manufacture.

Communications systems allow satellites to receive and transmit data, meaning they can be controlled from Earth and send back information gathered from space. Radio antennae and transponders are the main components for these systems, and flight software aids these functions so they can take place smoothly.

Power systems typically involve the use of solar panels, which can glean an amount of power many times higher than panels situated on Earth. This gives satellites all the fuel they need to function while keeping batteries charged just in case. Smaller satellites don’t require much more than several watts, but larger craft can consume many tens of thousands of times that. Supercapacitors are also used to keep power supplies from fluctuating too much.

Propulsion systems are not always present on CubeSats, usually due to issues with the bulk of thrusters combined with available space and mass of a small satellite. However, green solutions such as water-based propulsion systems for small satellites are indicative of the innovation in this area and where future efforts might yield reliable ways to manoeuvre CubeSats in space.

Where are satellites manufactured?

Various locations around the world are bases for satellite manufacturing processes, such as the US, Russia, and Italy. It may surprise some, however, to learn that Scotland is one of the leading nations for satellite manufacture.

More satellites are built in Scotland than any other location outside of California, and focused talent pools from Dundee to A’Mhoine mean that Scotland is an increasingly attractive prospect for the future of satellite manufacturing.

AAC Clyde Space, a now-global name in CubeSat development, operates heavily out of Glasgow, and has utilised Bright Ascension satellite software to aid in a number of key missions.

How are satellites quality and control tested?

Every satellite must be tested before it goes into orbit. Faults to the design and composition could make the satellite cease to function, either at launch as forces take their toll on the satellite itself or once out in the vacuum of space.

There are a wide range of tests to check satellites, including climate tests to ensure the satellite can withstand extreme heat and cold, vibration checks to ensure parts can withstand high-frequency movement, and the capacity to endure shocks that could dislodge or disconnect components like wiring.

These facilities are often highly specialised and take up a lot of room, so certain offerings like the UK’s upcoming National Satellite Test Facility provide these services on a commercial basis for those working in satellite manufacturing processes.

Mission-ready software for satellites

Bright Ascension’s Flight Software Development Kit is a purpose-built solution for satellite manufacturers who need more readily customisable yet easily available off-the-shelf mission software.

To learn more about our software products and to book a trial or demo, contact us today.

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We’ve been evolving our technology over the past 12 years through extensive development work. During this time, our software has powered more than 50 spacecraft in orbit, helping them to maximise their mission potential. 

Contact us today to see our products in action and arrange a one-to-one demo of our software, tailored to your unique mission needs and requirements.