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The project risks associated with putting a satellite into space

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The first few hours of Martin Dix’s first day at Satellite Applications Catapult was spent in a kick-off meeting for the first satellite into space as part of the organisation’s In Orbit Demonstration Programme (IOD), which gives start-up the chance to test their ideas in space.

Dix was an experienced project manager, but the space sector was new to him. “I knew absolutely nothing about satellites except for what I’d seen in science fiction films. I did not know my apogee from my perigee.”

The only thing he could do was to fall back on project management knowledge, and let the customer fill in the rest. It would take him far as the project progressed, but there were some specific challenges that he would need to learn about, and fast.

Dix told his story at APM’s space sector seminar, which took place in last month. If you're interested in space and project management, don't miss Suzie Imber's speech at the APM Power of Projects Conference in Edinburgh on 17 March

Satellite Applications Catapult is a government-funded organisation with a mission to enable and support emerging businesses and innovations within the space sector.

Space projects are still projects, requiring the usual controls and governance, stakeholder management, budgeting and a detailed scope for delivery. Where it can differ is with risk. The space sector has several unique risks to deal with, and so planning must be incredibly precise.

“Once you’ve launched [a satellite], it’s incredibly difficult to make a change because it’s in space,” Dix explains. “The environment of space is quite a tricky place to put anything. Its a vacuum for a start, you’ve got heavy radiation, it gets hot, it gets cold – there’s a lot of risk involved in these projects.”

Understanding the standards

The space industry has developed a set of universal standards that projects should adhere to in order to manage these risks effectively. In Europe, this is covered by the European Cooperation for Space Standardisation (ECSS). These are primarily aimed at very large projects costing billions, however, where it is necessary to reduce risk down to zero before you are ready to launch. Satellite Applications Catapult is running things on a much smaller scale – with its smaller ‘CubeSat’ launches, the project often costs less than a million. While it’s not necessary to take the risk down to zero, its projects still follow ECSS, with the following stages:

  • System Requirements Review (SRR)
  • Mission Readiness Review (MRR)
  • Preliminary Design Review (PDR)
  • Critical Design Review (CDR)
  • Test Readiness Review (TRR)
  • Flight Readiness Review (FRR)
  • Operational Readiness Review (ORR)
  • Launch

Most of these stages involve checking the work and testing it out to make sure it is sound, from the clarity of objectives and instructions to the testing of all functions, with careful testing of design in between.

The launch date on a space project is fairly fixed, but it will move if necessary. It’s crucial to have a ‘proximity date’ in the project schedule to make sure that the satellite will be ready for launch on the date scheduled – if it misses its date, the project will incur considerable costs to move it. “If you can’t be certain by the proximity date, you can arrange for it to be on a different launch, that means you can save costs.”

With all of these considerations, you would consider the design and build of the satellite (installing a company’s ‘payload’ technology on a blank CubeSat) would be the more beset by issues. However, it was when the satellite was ready to deliver that Dix experienced his biggest headaches.

Delivery headaches

The satellite must be shipped to the United States in order to launch. As you can imagine, it takes some paperwork to be able to send a satellite across the Atlantic. Dix’s first issue arose when trying to acquire an export licence. Because the GPS system in the satellite was previously installed on a missile, some questions arose around its usage. Once it was made clear that the satellite had no military uses, the issue was addressed. There are also customs forms and fees to be paid, which, while they were all paid, still caused issues for Dix and his team in the long run.

The Satellite was flown from Glasgow to Heathrow on its way to Houston. It was listed on the manifest, and Dix watched the progress of the flight online to make sure the satellite was retrieved. With no answer from his launch partners in Texas, Dix rang them to find that it wasn’t on the plane after all – the baggage train had broken down and missed the flight, meaning that while the satellite was still listed on the manifest, it was actually still on the ground.

The satellite was returned to the warehouse too late to be added to a flight the next day. Dix had shipped the satellite three days early to make sure it made its launch. It had to get on a flight on that third day. He was told that there was no guarantee it could be done.

Dix’s team took to the phones and started speaking to Clydespace and British Airways Glasgow, which then contacted the head of operations for British Airways at Heathrow, who said he would walk the satellite out to the plane personally the next day. “He did – he walked it out to the aeroplane and guaranteed it was on the flight. However, it did mean that with this flight, it was going to be getting in very late into Houston to be incorporated into the launcher.”

Once it got into Houston, customs refused to release it – because of the delay in shipping, the customs officials thought its fees hadn’t been paid. A few phone calls later, the mistake was cleared up and the satellite made its launch.

Operations thankfully went live without a hitch once the satellite was in space – Dix had delivered his first space project. “We are still operating that satellite now, and it’s still providing good data.”

Learn more about space and project management with Suzie Imber who works with the UK Space Agency and NASA, specialises in planetary environments, and travels to the most inhospitable places on earth at the APM Power of Projects Conference in Edinburgh on 17 March.

Brought to you by Project journal.

Image: Vadim Sadovski/


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