This story is part of, CNET’s coverage of the push and pull to manufacture more products in the USA.
In a massive clean room in the middle of Denver, a giant satellite sits dormant, waiting for its journey into orbit. Engineers with Lockheed Martin’s Space division move around its hulking body, indistinguishable from one another in their face masks and full-body protective suits.
They perch over the spacecraft on a large forklift, taking laser-guided measurements. They shuffle underneath the satellite’s belly, triple-checking the position of wires and instruments. They lean up close to its mammoth silver facade, delicately adjusting tiny components by as little as one-thousandth of an inch. It’s like watching dozens of Mike Teavees, shrunk down and moving around the inner workings of a Wonkavision TV set.
I’ve been Wonkafied myself — gaffer-taped into a white clean suit, complete with clip-on booties, two masks and, hilariously, an orange hairnet that tells everyone I’m from overseas. (Getting access to Lockheed facilities, including this clean room, requires a full security credentialing process. US citizens are dressed in all white, but foreign nationals, including Australians like me, need to be easily identifiable while on-site. I don’t mind the extra flair — after all, one does want a hint of color).
I’ve been given rare access to see the GOES-T, a massive weather satellite Lockheed Martin Space is building for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA. The satellite is destined to enter, a bit more than 22,000 miles above Earth’s surface, and collect huge amounts of data about weather here on Earth and in space.
“We’re getting 30 times the data down on this satellite as they did on the previous satellites,” says GOES-T’s deputy program manager, Alreen Knaub. “We’re doing space weather, sun weather and Earth weather.”
After its launch, scheduled for February 2022, the satellite will track meteorological events in precise detail, mapping lightning strikes, following fire lines and tracking extreme weather in real time. All this data beamed down from space could potentially be life-saving, helping scientists and meteorologists better predict natural disasters and protect all of us here on the ground.
You can’t be too careful when it comes to building a spacecraft and preparing it for launch. From the initial fabrication of the circuit boards inside the satellite to the final testing, the team at Lockheed Martin Space is concerned with precision at every stage of the build. This isn’t “measure twice, then cut once.” This is measure countless times with lasers, reposition, measure again, repeatedly torture test, show it to the lady in the orange hairnet, then take your one chance for launch.
After all, this isn’t your standard piece of electronic hardware. If a satellite breaks down, it’s virtually impossible to get it repaired 22,000 miles above the Earth.
The GOES-T is the third satellite in a family of four Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites used by NOAA to track weather from low Earth orbit. Being geostationary satellites, these spacecraft are designed to stay in a fixed orbit in time with the Earth’s rotation. GOES-T is set to stay stationed above North and South America, bringing in data for the Western Hemisphere.
(A note on naming: The group of satellites is known as the GOES-R family. Each satellite has an alphabetical name here on Earth before being assigned a number in space. The GOES-R and GOES-S satellites launched in 2016 and 2018, respectively, and are now known as GOES-16 and GOES-17. After it launches, GOES-T will become GOES-18. The final GOES-U satellite is still in the early build stages and is expected to launch in 2024. So it’s still a few years before it actually GOES, so to speak.)
GOES-T has instruments to track space and sun weather activity like solar flares, changes in the magnetosphere and radiation hazards. All have the power to affect not only the planet’s weather, but also electronics and communications equipment here on Earth, and in the International Space Station. In fact, one of the tasks of the GOES satellites is to provide warnings to astronauts on the ISS about incoming solar activity that could affect their operations or interfere with their instruments.
The GOES-T is also packed with instruments for tracking Earth weather, like the Geostationary Lightning Mapper, which can map lightning all over the world, and the Advanced Baseline Imager, which takes images of the clouds, atmosphere and surface of Earth.
“We can not only track forest fires; the Advanced Baseline Imager can measure their heat signature, so we can see if they’re intensifying,” says Knaub. “So when you see the fire threat going up, often that’s based on data from this satellite. … It’s a great tool in predicting forest fires, managing forest fires and knowing where to send the firefighters.”
It’s this kind of data that has a huge impact on our day-to-day lives, even if we don’t realize it. During emergencies like Hurricane Ida, which battered the Gulf Coast over the past summer, the data brought down from GOES satellites was life-saving.
“[Hurricane Ida] was a Category 2, and they knew based on the thermal picture of the Gulf that it was going to rapidly intensify into a Category 4 once it hit that Gulf weather,” says Knaub. “And so we were within two hours of predicting when it would hit land mass, and within just a few miles of where we said it was going, 60 hours out. Which is unheard of.”
From little things, big things grow
Accuracy in the sky starts with accuracy on the ground, and for the team at Lockheed Martin Space, that begins with the tiny components that power the satellite.
Across the road from the clean room, I’m given a sky-blue lab coat and shown around Lockheed’s Space Electronics Center. This is where electrical engineers manufacture, assemble and solder the circuit boards, modules and boxes for the spacecraft.
“We focus on power and avionics, which is going to be the life and the brains of a satellite,” says Angelo Trujillo, one of the engineering aide specialists at the SEC.
Though many of these components were once soldered by hand, much of the fabrication is now done with the help of automation. Walking around the SEC lab, I see machines programmed to solder circuitry, and robotic arms whir as they lay down components on circuit boards. Gone are the electrical engineers identifying tiny resistors based on their color-coded stripes — instead, long spools of plastic-sealed components are wound up like film reels, ready to be loaded into the machines for automated assembly.
“It’s a lot better for proficiency and efficiency; we get the same results every time,” Trujillo tells me. “Where hand-soldering it would take a lot longer. What we can do in an hour, it would take a week or two to try and hand-solder.”
(Automation doesn’t just save time, it also helps avoid costly failures. Lockheed Martin declined to reveal how much the GOES-T cost to build, but the entire GOES-R program has a budget of $10.8 billion.)
After they leave the SEC, the electronics and circuit boards come together with other components in an assembly process that sounds like a giant game of Lego, albeit with much higher stakes.
“[The GOES-T] actually starts out as a bunch of piece parts, and the piece parts are assembled into boxes, and then the boxes become what they call subsystems,” says Knaub. “So just like your house has an air conditioner, a heater, this satellite has the same thing. It has a power system. It has a thermal system. It has a guidance and navigation control system. And all that gets put together. … It really is complex.”
Before they’re all assembled into the final satellite, each of these systems and components has to be torture-tested to ensure it can survive in orbit. The idea is to work out the kinks on Earth so they don’t turn up as problems in space.
The components are subjected to vibration testing that simulates the shaking of a rocket launch (the last thing you want is a satellite that breaks before it’s even reached space). Then they’re tested to see if they’ll withstand the wild temperature fluctuations they’ll experience in orbit.
For that, Lockheed has its own space simulator of sorts: a vacuum-sealed tube, about the size of a small car, known as a thermal vacuum chamber. Components are placed inside this TVAC unit, the door is sealed, and then engineers draw it down to a vacuum before running through a cycle of hot and cold temperatures.
Then, when those components are built into the satellite, all that testing happens again: mechanical environment tests to simulate launch, more thermal vacuum testing and, of course, precision testing of communications equipment.
“We actually blast it with electronic electromagnetic waves to make sure it sees all the possible interference it could see,” says Knaub. “You know how you get static on your radio? You don’t want that coming across in the spacecraft.”
Eye in the sky
Once the GOES-T aces its tests, it’ll blast off from Space Launch Complex-41 in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on an Atlas V rocket. It’ll jolt through the atmosphere to join a swarm of zooming around in low Earth orbit. And then it’ll hold its position directly above the Americas, hopefully for years, sending scientific data back to Earth.
If the GOES-T satellite is successful in its mission, it’ll undoubtedly save lives, bringing in more weather data in less time and helping officials predict the path and intensity of extreme weather events like hurricanes and wildfires.
But chances are most of us won’t really know it’s there. It’ll quietly beam down data that we ultimately see on weather apps, or in updates on the evening news. It’ll become one of the thousands of human-made sentinels orbiting our planet, 24 hours a day, helping us stay connected and alive.