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To Russia with love

In March 2007, SSTL announced that it had signed an order with Federal State Unitary Enterprise - The Russian Research and Production Enterprise Pan-Russian Research Institute for Electromechanics (FSUE NPP VNIIEM) and Radioexport of Russia for the supply for the supply of satellite platform equipment and services for the KANOPUS Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Earth observation spacecraft. The first satellite, KANOPUS-B will monitor the Earth's surface and support the monitoring of disasters, agricultural planning and the management of water and coastal resources. The project was to be a highly cooperative effort from the beginning, with great admiration on both sides of the project. The cooperation has also been different in the nature of its deliverables, and for technical, cultural reasons. First of all, let’s look into the project itself. SSTL is a small satellite manufacturer, that regularly builds and integrates fully-functioning satellites like the recently launched UK-DMC2 or Deimos-1 earth observation missions. It also supplies sub-systems such as high resolution earth imaging payloads, multi-spectral imagers, on-board computers or GPS receivers for third party missions. For the KANOPUS-B contract, a new approach was adopted where SSTL would build the satellite platform, avionics equipment and software, but then support VNIIEM with their spacecraft assembly and payload integration activities in Russia. Integration "“ the moment of truth During May and June, teams from SSTL visited VNIIEM’s impressive Assembly, integration and test (AIT) facilities in Moscow. AIT Engineer Rob Gibbings and manufacturing engineer Greg Rouse can be seen to the left cutting a wiring harness to the required length and attaching customer connectors onto the SSTL harness. More recently, in August, a team from SSTL visited the VNIIEM AIT facilities in Moscow to connect the SSTL equipment with the rest of the satellite equipment, perform tests on hardware and perform initial integration checks before satellite integration. In the photo Lead AIT engineer Ari Venkatesan is connecting the VNIIEM Solar Array Simulator (SAS) to the SSTL power system, which was one of the integration checks performed. During the visit in August, SSTL successfully integrated the VNIIEM SAS. SSTL provided power and pulse-per-second [satellite timing information] to the Mission Hardware (Payload) through our systems, and achieved communication between the SSTL on-board computer and the Mission Hardware over the MIL-1553 data bus. One of the major technical differences was the Russian’s use of a MIL-1553 data bus, and the compatibility of the SSTL built systems with this. SSTL’s heritage systems use a CAN (control area network) bus for robust on-board communications between subsystems. VNIIEM wanted SSTL’s CAN-based systems to be able to "talk" to the 1553 bus systems reliably and with no loss of information. This has been achieved by using the OBC (On-Board Computer) as the interface between the SSTL CAN data bus and the VNIIEM MIL-1553 data bus. The OBC in effect performs the translation from MIL-1553 data into CAN data and vice-versa. The SSTL on-board computer is also using newly developed flight software for this mission. Building the software from the new operating system upwards and accommodating the new and different payload interfaces and modes of operation to what SSTL is accustomed to is no small task. This newly developed software successfully established communications with the Mission Hardware during the testing in Moscow. Further testing is required, but this first step went a long way to build confidence in both teams. The culture of engineering Yes, you heard right. Culture and engineering in the same sentence. The two companies have a very different engineering culture. SSTL has made a name for itself by changing the economics of space "“ a feat made possible by adopting Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) technology and applying it to space systems.
VNIIEM AIT facilities in Moscow
Its heritage is built on a "systems engineering" approach which takes advantage of new technologies and tight integration. For example, one of the reasons that SSTL can provide such fast turnaround for missions is that their "off the shelf" platforms comprise tightly integrated subsystems for telemetry, navigation, mission planning and attitude control. The culture of engineering in Russia is quite different. This is largely because SSTL’s Russian counterparts are more familiar with building larger satellites with stringent specifications and reliability requirements. SSTL, on the other hand builds complete systems that are integrated with software and (re)programmable electronics. The modules are physically separate and can be tested separately, but the customer benefits from advanced functionality and a more robust system within a lower total cost of ownership (TCO) when the system is treated as a whole. Project Manager, Alex O’Neill explained,
"The design process is also different. Whereas we would design and allow for margins of error, the Russian approach is more focussed on eliminating errors through thorough, precise and comprehensive analysis and design choices."
"This meant that our initial meetings could stop and start, with both ourselves and the VNIIEM engineers having different expectations."
SSTL is a dynamic young company that attracts talented young scientists and engineers, as such the average age of the core team dedicated to the VNIIEM project is 33, even experts in a particular field may not be much older. Alex O’Neill reflects,
"In the beginning, the age difference was very noticeable. We felt that we were perhaps treated with some fair scepticism by the more mature and very experienced and capable Russian engineers. Initially, our ideas were also difficult for these experienced space veterans to fully appreciate, but I am pleased to say that a strong mutual respect has been earned by both sides."
It is believed that the KANOPUS satellites will be launched either at the end of 2009 and early 2010, and SSTL looks forward to a long a fruitful relationship with VNIIEM in the future.





25 September 20090 Comments1 Comment

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