Florida’s Brevard County is a popular location for many companies that serve the aerospace and defense industry. New technologies are constantly being developed and launched into space, such as last month’s MUOS-3 satellite that launched out of Cape Canaveral. One of the local companies that worked on the MUOS mission is in the process of creating a new product that will help advance communication systems and lower the cost of satellite launches.
Headquartered in Melbourne, Fla., Harris Corporation, or Harris, employs nearly 6,500 people in 19 locations across seven Florida cities. Nearly $900 million of Harris R&D activities are performed in the Sunshine State, with close to 3.5 million square feet of office and manufacturing space. Harris is a prime contributor to Florida’s space and defense industries and the community. It is the largest technology company based in Central Florida.
In collaboration with Vanguard Space Technologies, Harris recently announced that the company will “produce a lightweight antenna reflector product for space borne application that offers technological and mass advantages over other reflector technologies.” This product is called the Harris’ Fixed Mesh Reflector, or FMR, and has over 30 years of expertise behind it.
AmericaSpace interviewed Thomas Campbell, who oversees business development pertaining to Harris space antennas, on the new FMR technology and how it will revolutionize the satellite industry.
What is the size of the FMR?
In terms of size, Campbell said that the FMR might be between 2.5-3.5 meters.
“The Fixed Mesh Reflector is part of a larger antenna portfolio that Harris has developed over the last 30 years or so, and it is a type of antenna that doesn’t deploy. That’s why it is called ‘fixed mesh.’ It is limited in size to what can be fit inside of a rocket fairing. The largest fairing today is about 3.5 meters in diameter.”
What is the cost of the FMR?
According to Campbell, the cost of the FMR is priced competitively with other competing technologies. The current competition for the FMR is a solid graphite antenna.
“Harris developed mesh over 30 years ago for large unfurlables. It’s kind of like our ‘secret sauce’ or something we hold very, very dear to us. It has a many benefits over solids.”
- FMR is much lighter and about half the mass of a similarly sized graphite antenna
- It is up to 80 percent optically transparent. This makes thermal management of the satellite much easier and it will not cast shadows on the spacecraft or solar arrays
- It doesn’t react to acoustic loading—the high frequency vibration experienced during launch that can severely affect the spacecraft structures and payloads. The structure and equipment on the satellite can be lighter weight or more simpler to further reduce the cost of the mass of the satellite.
Harris says the FMR “replaces solid and tri-axial weave reflectors with up to a 50 percent mass reduction. This approach is an innovative combination of RF reflective mesh with a fixed, thermoelastically stable composite frame. Mesh surfaces are available for applications from UHF to V-band (to 50 GHz or higher) with RF reflectivity equivalent to the best solid reflectors.”
Has this type of mesh (fixed mesh) been tested or used before?
“This is a new mesh. It is higher density mesh that we use for higher frequency antennas. The Ka-band is currently the highest frequency being used on orbit and our mesh is developed to handle those frequencies.”
Besides the Ka-band, FMRs are designed for C- and Ku-band applications, too. They require small spot beams for efficient frequency re-use resulting in increased satellite capacity.
According to Campbell, frequency re-use uses “a large reflector to create a more focused beam on the ground and you create a series of beams to cover the geography you’re interested in. Then you parse your frequency band up into different sub segments and you re-use those segments geographically isolated from one another. In the past you might have one broad beam that covers a country but now they use many, many spots with the same amount of bandwidth but reuse those frequencies over and over. You can get over a hundred times more data on a modern satellite than on a legacy satellite with the same bandwidth.”
The higher the frequency, the higher the gain. The more gain you have, the stronger the signal, and the more data you can transit. This is done by maximizing the aperture size of the antenna within the available launch fairing envelope.
What is the lifespan of the FMR?
All of Harris’ antennas are passive in nature and have relatively long lifespans. Harris manufactures the reflectors at their state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Palm Bay, Fla. The company is the world leader in space-borne, unfurlable (deployable) mesh antenna reflectors.
Over 30 years of expertise goes into the design work and engineering behind the FMR; however, this type of mesh is fixed and doesn’t deploy. One of the more recent examples of Harris’ unfurlable reflectors is the last MUOS-3 launch. Harris is on contract to build 10 reflectors for the MUOS constellation at two per satellite. There are two more MUOS launches scheduled for deployment.
“I think we have antenna products that have been on orbit for over 20 years,” Campbell added.
When will the FMR be ready for launch?
“We are on contract with our first customer and we will deliver in January of next year. It will launch sometime after that, usually about six months,” said Campbell.
At this time, Harris is unsure who the launch provider will be or where it will be launching from. A provider will be chosen as the expected date of delivery draws closer.
What is Harris Corporation currently working on?
Harris is an international communications and information technology company that has approximately $5 billion of annual revenue. The company is “dedicated to developing best-in-class assured communications products, systems, and services.” Harris revolutionizes early communications starting in the 1890s and has since moved into the “Space Age.”
“We are working on multiple high-frequency satellite systems. One that is cutting-edge with a new 5-meter Ka-band product. We have multiple spot beam array systems, also Ka, that do smaller reflectors and smaller antennas, and those are all commercial.”
Campbell has been with Harris for over 14 years and first started out as a mechanical engineer. He worked on the MUOS program over 10 years ago, when Harris started to design the first of the MUOS antennas. MUOS is a UHF band communication system used for ground radios.
“What’s unique about the MUOS system is that it is a secure DoD waveform but it’s a low frequency so that is can penetrate forest cover or bad weather. It’s a super reliable form of communication and because the antennas are very large in orbit, a hand-held radio can connect with it. “
Harris recently finished creating its $100 million high-tech engineering center on the company’s Palm Bay campus in Florida. The magnificent glass structure is six stories high and 464,000 square feet. The center is a modern marvel, with the architecture designed to foster engineering innovation while attracting new talent and highly skilled engineers to the area.
Besides developing revolutionary technologies, the new tech center is an example of the impact Harris has on creating high-paying jobs and boosting the regions economy in Central Florida.