Building satellites to service satellites on orbit

Jennifer Dawson, 37, technical director for the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program at SSL in California

Jennifer Dawson knew little about engineering before a class and a movie sparked her interest in studying and then teaching the subject. After two years as an assistant engineering professor at York College of Pennsylvania, Dawson in 2010 moved to Palo Alto, California, to join SSL. She leads a team of 40 engineers working on the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites program, a public-private partnership that in 2021 plans to launch a satellite equipped with two robotic arms plus sensors and tools to repair, upgrade, extend the life of and move satellites that were never designed for on-orbit servicing.

How did you become an aerospace engineer?

With no engineers in my family, my interest in engineering was sparked by my eighth-grade science teacher who assigned engaging hands-on design projects. I was also struck by a scene in the movie “Apollo 13” where a group of engineers tries to fix an air filter. They dump parts on a table and have to use those parts to make a square filter fit in a round hole. I remember thinking, “That’s a job? That sounds so cool!” With this rather naive impression of engineering, I went to Bucknell University [in Pennsylvania]. I majored in mechanical engineering. During the summers, I worked as a Stanford University intern for the Gravity Probe B program, a satellite-based physics experiment. I completed a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Stanford, and my doctoral research focused on another satellite development program, Satellite Test of the Equivalence Principle. I spent two years as a tenure-track professor [at York College in Pennsylvania] teaching, amongst other things, a senior elective in aerospace engineering, before I decided to work in industry. I left academia to join SSL. As SSL’s technical director for Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites, I’m working in a public-private partnership with DARPA to develop a highly capable robotic servicing vehicle based on the SSL 1300 platform equipped with a robotic payload developed by the Naval Research Lab.

Imagine the world in 2050. What do you think will be happening in space?

Within the next five to 10 years, we are going to see revolutionary changes in space infrastructure. By 2050, space infrastructure will be deployed, maintained and upgraded like much of our terrestrial infrastructure. Currently, we launch spacecraft and, outside of the space station, there is almost no capability to change satellite equipment over the life of a satellite or to recover from setbacks. Aerospace is the only industry where companies and governments invest hundreds of millions of dollars in equipment with no ability to repair or update the technology. The on-orbit servicing and assembly capabilities developed through programs like DARPA’s Robotic Servicing of Geostationary Satellites, NASA’s Restore-L servicing mission, and SSL’s Dragonfly on-orbit satellite assembly program are going to change the paradigm of static spacecraft, facilitate new spacecraft architectures, enhance fleet resiliency and provide unprecedented flexibility for operators throughout the spacecraft life, which will ultimately provide better services and value for our customers and build a better world. The robotic capabilities we are demonstrating today are laying the foundation for a future ecosystem of habitats, way stations and gateways to the moon, Mars and beyond. Before people can safely inhabit deep space destinations, robotics will be used extensively to build the infrastructure. I’m convinced this is coming.

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Building satellites to service satellites on orbit