A project team at the Arnold Engineering Development Complex has successfully completed an initial site acceptance test campaign on Arnold’s new, one-of-a-kind space asset testing facility.
The Space Threat Assessment Testbed can simulate a realistic operational environment to space hardware, using multiple source simulators to emulate the conditions existing at various orbits.
The facility will fulfill a long-standing need for a national mission-critical asset with capabilities previously unavailable anywhere in the world, according to Keith Holt, Aerospace Testing Alliance’s STAT program manager.
“There are facilities in the world that have one of these sources, maybe four of these sources on it, in the natural environment,” Holt said. “Ours will have a total of 10 sources between the natural, the man-made and the self-induced sources.”
Looking further out, Holt said once AEDC’s STAT asset is fully mission capable for testing of large satellite components and ‘microsatellites,’ the facility will provide what had been practically non-existent during developmental work prior to a launch.
“The only testing to date of that kind of activity is post-launch,” he said. “We throw a half-billion dollar piece of equipment up there and we wait and see what happens. STAT is being built to try to do that testing pre-launch and understand what’s destroying our satellite capabilities and what can we do to protect those, to harden those satellites.”
The STAT facility will simulate the other three conditions found outside the Earth’s atmosphere — a vacuum and extreme heat and cold.
Elaborating on the sources he had listed, Holt said, “Self-induced sources are what the satellite does to itself as the materials in it are out-gassing, from the inside and also from the satellite’s exterior. The man-made are the threats that our enemies want to use against the satellite. Then the natural environment is what occurs normally in space, like atomic oxygen, electrons, protons, all of the things that are naturally damaging our satellites.”
Nikki Tracey, AEDC’s Air Force STAT program manager, said she is confident that ongoing checkout testing on the facility will enable the unique space testing asset to transfer to Space and Missile Test Complex ownership by January.
“Now that we’ve completed the initial site acceptance test, which includes a specified number of sources in a certain environment this summer, we’ll wrap up our efforts when we integrate the rest of the system and complete operator training and so forth,” she said. “The remaining milestone, prior to transferring the facility to Space and Missiles as an operational test unit, is the final site acceptance test.”
The initial site acceptance test is equivalent to the halfway point of mission capability, whereas the final acceptance test is when STAT will be fully mission ready.
Tracey said such a space environment testing asset has been needed for close to 10 years, maybe longer.
“In the early 2000s, the Aerospace Corporation published reports that that showed since 1990, somewhere between 35 to 45 percent of our satellite systems experienced at least one mission-degrading failure by its third year in operation,” she said. “[When] we send something up there, it’s up there and it’s not coming back — you can’t do depot maintenance.”
Regarding the facility’s capabilities, Keith Holt said the bottom line is preventing the loss of critical capabilities provided by satellites, from communications to research.
“We lose billions of dollars worth of assets a year in Department of Defense and commercial satellites, just because they fail due to atmospheric conditions, the natural environment in space,” he said.
Tracey said STAT will do more than create an environment similar to what it will actually see on orbit.
“[It] provides the opportunity to develop training tactics, techniques and procedures for satellite operators. If they see an anomaly from a satellite, we can tell them exactly what caused that anomaly by creating certain conditions on the ground [in AEDC's test cell].”
Holt and Tracey agree that when they consider all of the capabilities that STAT has demonstrated with the recent milestone, it would not have been possible without the collaborative effort involved. AEDC’s STAT team and Alliant Techsystems, a large aerospace and defense company, comprised the key players on the project.
“As the prime contractor, ATK coordinated and executed the design and fabrication of the STAT system,” Holt said. “Dawn Battles, ATK STAT program manager, and her team have recently been handling STAT’s onsite assembly, installation, testing and checkout.”
Tracey is particularly proud of an additional thing AEDC’s STAT team was able to accomplish.
“Carrie McInturff, our ATA project engineer, and Marc Smotherman, ATA’s STAT Data Acquisition and Control System and Chamber lead, built our test article, a fully-instrumented microsatellite,” she said. “They were supported by Roger Johnson and Ricky Bush, an instrument technician and an outside machinist from the Space Systems Test Facility next door.”