Ball Aerospace: Where Satellites Come From

PopSci visits the Colorado facility of the company that makes satellites, advanced instruments, and mason jars

When it comes to space, what goes up must be sturdy, safe and secure if it's to live very long. Satellites must survive the bone-rattling jostle and pressure of launch, and once they reach orbit, they've got to weather the vast temperature changes they experience with every sunrise and sunset. Their skins must be thick enough to survive pummeling by micro-debris, and they'd better have trusty gyroscopes to be able to change directions or keep their balance.

That's why space-bound objects undergo thorough testing at firms like Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., builders of satellite skeletons, gyroscopes, advanced instruments, and mason jars. (Well, that's a different division.)

Ball Jar (CC licensed)

Ball Corporation, the parent company, started out in 1880 making wooden-jacketed tin cans for paint, and added a hit line of home canning jars four years later. Glass mason jars for home canning still bear the Ball logo. The company started making aerospace devices in 1956, and has built numerous spacecraft for NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Defense Department, among others.

Ball's research and development campus in Boulder, Colo., was the birthing grounds of lofty craft like the satellite that discovered the ozone hole; the Kepler planet-hunting telescope; most of the instruments on the Hubble Space Telescope; and the satellites that provide images for Google Earth.

PopSci recently paid a visit and got a glimpse of the arduous process of building and testing a spacecraft.

JWST Actuators

In this photo, engineers in a clean room examine the actuators that will control one of the 18 mirror segments on the James Webb Space Telescope, the Hubble's successor. The actuators are small motors attached to a delta frame that will move the 55-pound mirror pieces an almost-inscrutable 7 nanometers at a time. The JWST is so large that its primary mirror must unfold in space, and engineers have to be able to align each piece to form one smooth surface. Each mirror moves on three axes, and must function at roughly -400 degrees Fahrenheit -- the JWST is an infrared telescope, so its mirrors must be freezing cold to work well. Ball is a subcontractor of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems on the JWST.courtesy Ball Aerospace & Technologies


The WISE satellite, or Widefield Infrared Survey Explorer, will make the JWST a little smarter. The 12-foot-tall space telescope will conduct an all-sky infrared survey to examine bright spots and potential points of interest for the JWST. This image shows the craft inside Ball's thermal vacuum chamber, which gauges its ability to handle severe temperature changes. At the high speeds required to maintain low Earth orbit, a satellite takes an average of 90 minutes to revolve around the planet. On the sunny side, temperatures can soar to 500 degrees Fahrenheit; on the dark side, they can drop to -450 F. Most materials will expand and contract with those changes, so engineers have to make sure the satellite won't fall apart. "We need to make sure the aluminum and foil or glass will be OK together, because they expand and contract," said Ken Hutchison, Ball's senior photographer and resident tour guide.courtesy Ball Aerospace & Technologies

JWST Acoustic Test

At Ball, engineers use vibration pads to see how satellites shake, but the true test of a spacecraft's mettle comes from concert speakers. The speakers shown here hit 800,000 watts, and come from the same company that provides the audio for the Rolling Stones. A space-bound instrument or a satellite skeleton will sit in this wall of sound while engineers blast white noise at it, at roughly 145 decibels. That's a little louder than the sound of a jet engine, and simulates the sound of launch. "You can't be in the room when it's on, even with hearing protection," Hutchison said. In this image, a component of the JWST is ready for its Memorex moment.courtesy Ball Aerospace & Technologies


WorldView-2 will be the third in a constellation of satellites owned by DigitalGlobe, in Longmont, Colo, that stare back at the Earth. The satellite is equipped with super-sensitive gyroscopes, which will help it snap quick pictures of Earth as it flies overhead. Large control-moment gyros, about the size of basketballs, can whip the satellite around by 8 degrees per second. WorldView-2's younger cousins, WorldView-1 and QuickBird, supply many of the images used for Google Earth, as well as other Earth-image applications. WorldView-2 will expand DigitalGlobe's image-collection capability to about 2 million square kilometers a day. The satellite's images provide 1.8-meter resolution -- enough to glimpse a spread-out beach towel. WorldView-2 is scheduled to launch sometime this fall.courtesy Ball Aerospace & Technologies

JWST Model

In this photo, an engineer examines a working one-sixth scale model of the JWST, called the JWST Test Bed. It was built partly to help engineers create the right algorithms for the super-precise actuators; they could work out the math while the real mirrors were being built. But model-making was nothing new -- engineers and computer-assisted robots have a Santa's workshop of sorts, where they create models of everything Ball builds. The importance of such a seemingly tedious task came into focus during the Deep Impact mission, which intentionally crashed into comet Tempel-1 in 2005. Model builders figured out that the craft's solar array would hit its antenna, crippling its communication ability. The designers went back to the drawing board and fixed the problem. "That model saved the program who knows how many millions of dollars," Hutchison said. "So now we build models of everything."courtesy Ball Aerospace & Technologies


The Space-Based Surveillance Satellite, SBSS, will spy on spy satellites. It will track various space objects and focus on geosynchronous satellites, which would include telecommunications and spy satellites. In this image, engineers prepare the SBSS for testing in the electromagnetic interference chamber, or EMI chamber. Everything from coffee makers to BlackBerrys can interfere with a sensitive space instrument, not to mention radiation from the Sun and the interstellar medium. The EMI chamber judges how well the satellite's instruments can handle interference from other sources.courtesy Ball Aerospace & Technologies


The Kepler planet-hunting telescope is shown here in Ball's brand-new, taller clean room. The room, which is about a year old, can accommodate the kind of extra-large spacecraft the company hopes to continue building. Ball was the prime contractor for Kepler, which launched March 6 and will spend the next three and a half years staring at 100,000 stars for evidence of Earth-like planets. Kepler is sensitive enough to find small planets that orbit Sun-like stars at the right distance for liquid water to form. When one of those planets crosses, or "transits," the face of its star, the star will get a tiny bit dimmer, and Kepler will notice the change. The three-year stare will help ensure that each transit is a regular occurrence, a telltale sign of a planet. Aside from the new instruments just installed on the Hubble Space Telescope, Kepler is the most recent Ball-built craft to reach space.courtesy Ball Aerospace & Technologies