Space-based military applications are becoming increasingly important as orbital international competition and capabilities increase. Complex machining and turnkey manufacturing are essential to enabling collaboration between the private sector and US government to compete in the modern space race.
In the past decade, the realm of space has been revolutionized. Technologies such as reusable rocket engines, high complexity machining techniques, increasingly fuel efficient launch techniques, and new space-age materials have thrusted us into a new age of space exploration. With these innovations, comes a new set of national security challenges. New space players, such as China and India, are looking to make a foothold in Earth’s orbit with satellites and space stations of their own, and this will inherently result in conflict at various scales. America must find a way to protect its assets in space and secure a foothold to continue to explore new frontiers in the future and continue to enjoy current technologies enabled by space.
International trends in military space
Space militarization is not a new concept. The Cold War era space race between the United States and the Soviet Union was the first instance of this concept. Both nations raced to achieve superior spaceflight capability, and this period resulted in a leap in mankind’s technological capabilities without resulting in direct conflict. The realm of space was used by America to establish the Global Positioning System (GPS) and to conduct reconnaissance on the Soviet Union. The Soviets utilized space in a comparable manner by developing GLONASS (a technology similar to GPS), and by performing their own surveillance on the United States. From these basic beginnings of the military’s use of space, much evolution and development has occurred.
On March 27th, 2019, India announced that they had successfully tested an anti-satellite weapons system. It struck and destroyed an Indian Microsat-R satellite in a test flight that lasted about half a minute. The satellite in question had a surface area of two square meters and was flying at an altitude of 282 kilometers (925,197 feet) . Similarly, China fired on and destroyed one of its own satellites in 2007 demonstrating its ability to use ASAT, or anti-satellite, weapons. By doing so, they showed the world that the nation has a capable and rapidly growing space program . In the event of a conflict with China or India, anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) could wreak havoc on our military’s SATCOM capabilities as well impact our strategic reconnaissance assets. This could seriously hinder military efforts and be a major threat to national security.
China has also established a Strategic Support Force which focuses in part on the development of the nation’s space program . This in combination with China’s Tiangong space station, which is currently housing a crew of three astronauts, makes them a major threat to the United States. Iran also launched its first military satellite into low Earth orbit and announced its military space program on April 22, 2020, introducing another major player in extraterrestrial military operations . All these recent events clearly show that the era of U.S. and Russian space superiority is over. The United States must take serious steps to protect its assets in space.
US response to growing space threats
In response to these growing threats, the United States Space Force was established on December 20, 2019. This is a distinct branch of the armed services organized under the Air Force and its primary mission is to maintain, protect, and expand the fleet of advanced military satellites that form the backbone of U.S. global military operations . The United States have also been developing a space-based sensor system to detect and locate hypersonic missiles targeted at United States Satellites. There has also been research into a space-based ballistic missile interceptor and a directed energy weapon primarily used for intercepting incoming missiles . This is crucial due to the nature of hypersonic missiles. Because these weapons move at five times the speed of sound and have the capability to maneuver in a manner like a cruise missile for the entire duration of its flight, early detection and termination of these weapons is critical.
Considering China and Russia’s space-based offensive capabilities, low earth orbit military satellite constellations have become an attractive defense strategy. Traditional military satellites orbit the Earth at an altitude of 600 to 12,000 miles and are extremely expensive to replace. Low earth orbit satellite constellations, on the other hand, show potential to get military hardware into space at a much lower cost. Constellations are also more difficult to eliminate considering they are made up of a large fleet of satellites (often into the hundreds of individual units). An enemy would have to destroy copious quantities of these satellites to render military surveillance and communications useless. In contrast, it would only take a small number of attacks to eliminate our current military orbital infrastructure. DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and Lockheed Martin are currently developing this technology under Project Blackjack . To achieve our nation’s goals in space we must progress our current technologies to meet the challenge of intercepting ASATs and hypersonic missiles, but we cannot neglect manufacturing new satellites and weapon defense systems in a precise, reliable, adaptable, and cost-effective manner. This is where Primus Aerospace’s expertise in turnkey manufacturing can be an asset to any defense contractor.
Manufacturing for defense space applications
Traditionally, manufacturers only oversee a small portion of a component’s fabrication because they specialize in that given area. Primus is unique because we handle programming, machining, assembly, quality assurance, and hand finishing all in-house. This allows our aerospace machine shop to be flexible to design changes, which are extremely common in the process of developing modern technologies for contract manufacturing. We also have a wealth of experience in manufacturing for defense projects, including weapons systems, missiles, rockets, aerostructures, hydraulics, actuators, landing gears, space systems, and satellites. We regularly work with aerospace primes to develop manufacturing systems that support the development of prototypes and rate production for sensitive programs. This experience will allow us to transition smoothly into the production of space specific military components.
Because of the development of military satellite constellations, our nation’s capacity for manufacturing aerospace grade components must also increase. This takes a combination of talented engineers, CNC programmers, machinists, and quality inspectors that few aerospace machine shops employ. Primus can produce high complexity, tight tolerance parts at scale and regularly works on ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) projects. In addition to this, we have working relationships with value added providers that support our manufacturing capacity with services such as plating, passivation, heat treatment, and anodization. Because of these factors, Primus Aerospace would be an asset to Project Blackjack and future programs like it.
Due to the nature of aerospace, parts must be as light as possible to save on cost. This requires minimalist design with structure in high stress areas, excellent surface finish to avoid fatigue failure due to stress concentration, and weight saving cut-outs in less critical areas. Because of Primus Aerospace’s precision machining capabilities, these design features can become a physical reality. In addition to all these factors, complicated aerospace parts must be made in rapid succession to replace damaged equipment in the hazardous and debris ridden environment that satellites inhabit. Primus Aerospace’s manufacturing prowess and advanced machinery allows for rate production of high complexity parts that can conquer the challenges that space militarization imposes on manufacturing.
One 5-axis CNC Machine on our shop floor that highlights our manufacturing capabilities is our DMG Mori DMU 125 P duoBLOCK. This machine can perform milling and turning in a single setup with part rotational speeds up to 500 RPM. The DMU also has 453 tool pockets, maximum X and Y travels of 49.2 inches, a maximum Z travel of 39.4 inches, a maximum workpiece diameter of 49.2 inches, and a maximum workpiece height of 63 inches. This machine also has exceptional accuracy due to a completely water-cooled feed drive and the incorporation of a spindle growth system. The system measures the thermal and centrifugal force extension of the spindle and provides feedback to the CNC to compensate for this positional error. These capabilities allow Primus to manufacture large, extremely complex parts with limited fixturing on a single machine .
It has come extremely clear to the defense community that the threat of an attack on United States space infrastructure is imminent. We must take steps as a nation to mitigate this risk. This can be done by increasing funding to the Air Force and Space Force, increasing public awareness of the issue, developing new technologies to strengthen our defenses against ASATs and hypersonic platforms, and increasing our aerospace manufacturing capabilities. It is a matter of national defense that can potentially save the lives of the men and women in our armed forces. Primus Aerospace is proud to be directly involved in the retooling of our space infrastructure.
 Russia Launches Sputnik – News Agency and Radio – into Information Space, its Global Signal Stronger than Ever – Digital Report
 US Space Force seeks civilians to join staff | DefenceTalk
 Project Blackjack: DARPA’s LEO satellites take off (airforce-technology.com)
 DMU 125 P duoBLOCK – 5-axis milling from DMG MORI
The International Space Station is a modular space station located in low Earth orbit. This feat of engineering was accomplished through collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Boeing, Space X, Northrup Grumman Corporation, Sierra Nevada Corporation, Roscosmos (Russia), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. In addition to these prime contributors, many machine shops manufactured machined high-complexity components to build the ISS. Its purpose is to enable long-term exploration of space and provide benefits to people on Earth through research and technological developments . Its basic anatomy is shown below.
ISS Structure & Components
Structurally, the backbone of the ISS is the system of trusses attaching solar arrays, radiators, cargo, and living quarters. This is a frame with connecting joints for structural cross members and mating interfaces for connecting the trusses to other elements of the ISS.
Shown above is a central truss segment manufactured as a test specimen for the ISS. Nine of these segments make up the 360-foot-long truss of the International Space Station that hold four solar arrays. These arrays are the primary power source of the ISS . From a space station manufacturing perspective, this part was cut out of one large aluminum sheet with a water jet table. The pockets and holes were later bored out with a 3-axis CNC mill. Aerospace designers use pockets to achieve weight savings, and all holes are for assembly of the truss system in space. Since the holes must mate up with other components in space, it is crucial that these features are precisely located and then matched drilled.
The above-mentioned features are critical to the design of parts for space projects due to the extreme cost of moving materials to space. As an example – SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets, which are the current means of transporting materials up to and resupplying the ISS, cost a premium of $2,720 per kg of material for transport to the space station. Weight saving cutouts that do not sacrifice the structural integrity of a part can potentially save thousands of dollars.
Primus Aerospace has the capacity to make parts like this truss segment completely in-house. Our Omax 120x Abrasive Water Jet Cutting Machine has a work footprint of 21’8” x 17’3” which is more than large enough to cut out most structural frame outlines. Our 3 axis and 5 axis CNC mills are precise enough to maintain the extremely tight tolerances associated with mating surfaces.
Primus Aerospace manufactured various precision components that were used to assemble nodes and sub-assemblies of the International Space Station. Manufactured space components were composed of either high-grade plastic or metal. These components contributed to primary structures, secondary structures, robotic machinery, and life support systems. One particularly interesting part that was manufactured by Primus was for the mounting structure of the robonaut (seen above).
International Space Station Assembly
How were the international space station (ISS) components assembled while circling the Earth at 17,500 MPH? This engineering feat was accomplished with the station’s Mobile Servicing System. The MSS is comprised of a series of robotic arms that travel along the truss scaffolding of the International Space Station. The most notable of these arms, the Canadarm, is controlled remotely by astronauts in the Cupola Module. This is an observation deck that was specifically designed in a joint project with NASA, ESA, and Thales Alenia Space Italy to monitor and control the robotic arm . The robotic arm itself has seven degrees of freedom, and all seven of its joints can rotate 540 degrees. The Canadarm can travel the entire length of the space station and is capable of large assembly tasks . More intricate tasks are handled by the Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator, or Dextre for short. This is a two-armed robot that was primarily designed for performing external maintenance on the International Space Station and is precise enough to use tools and manipulate cargo from visiting spacecrafts . The vast system of robotic arms aboard the ISS makes the seemingly impossible task of extraterrestrial machine assembly possible.
The truss system provides the structure to which modular laboratories and nodes are attached to. Destiny is the primary United States lab for research and has 24 equipment rack interfaces for research and experiments. These interfaces house International Standard Payload Racks, modular units that contain an experiment or a set of lockers that each contain individual projects. These racks and lockers are usually purchased by governments or corporations for experimental purposes . Some other research laboratories on the ISS are the European Columbus Laboratory and the Japanese Hope Laboratory.
Aside from laboratories, the ISS also consists of a series of nodes. These structures perform a variety of distinct functions. The Unity node connects the US and Russian sections of the ISS. Harmony connects the US, European, and Japanese laboratories and contains several ports for spaceship docking. Tranquility provides accommodation for the inhabitants of the ISS such as living space and workout equipment.
These nodes and laboratories are manufactured in the same way. The individual nodes are composed of machined space components that are then assembled into the final node. They are all cylindrical pressure vessels with linear axial and radial ring supports. This backbone is filled in with panels to form the basic structure of these compartments.
Shown above is the Destiny Laboratory. Here, you can clearly see the cylindrical structure and precision machined space panels. The structural rings and axial members were either forged or extruded aluminum that were later CNC machined with a large 3 axis CNC mill to meet tolerance. The panels have a swept profile, making them impossible to manufacture on a 3-axis machine. The x-shaped cutouts shown above were milled using a 5 axis CNC mill. Primus utilizes gantry driven 5 axis CNC machines to be able to machine complex parts like the panels of the Destiny module. 5 axis machines allow the part in question to be machined on multiple different faces from complex angles without the need for re-fixturing. This allows Primus to machine parts from multiple orientations without running the risk of incorrectly locating the part during re-fixturing. With this capability, we can hit complex geometries such as coaxial holes, parallel surfaces, and tight form tolerances with precision and reliability.
The ISS is a multinational effort to sustain human existence in space and its primary purpose is to positively contribute to the lives of people living on Earth. It does this through research. Because the lack of gravity in space contributes negatively to human bone and muscle mass, resistive exercise devices have been developed to keep astronauts in shape while aboard the space station. These same techniques have been used to treat people with osteoporosis domestically. In addition, protein crystals can be grown far more efficiently and to greater extents in the absence of gravity, enabling researchers on board the ISS to analyze protein microstructures to a greater degree than was ever possible on Earth. This can lead to breakthroughs in the development of new drugs to treat diseases such as muscular dystrophy and cancer . Futuristic technologies, such as biomaterial 3D printing and cold welding of microscopic electronic devices, are also being developed in space at a rapid pace.
Biomaterial 3D printing has the potential to replace injured body parts at a fully customizable level. Bio-3D printing technology will revolutionize the medical field if done successfully. Cold welding allows for the perfect welding of two metals in contact with one another without sacrificing mechanical or electrical properties. This phenomenon is possible because the presence of a vacuum allows the electrons of two metal pieces in contact to flow freely between the two specimens without a layer of air or oxidized material hindering their motion. The free transport of electrons welds the two pieces together without any porosity, warping, or denaturing of either material. If this technique can be developed in space and used on Earth, it will further catalyze the influx of complex electrical devices and computers seen in the 21st century.
We at Primus are extremely proud to know that our aerospace manufacturing efforts are contributing to the International Space Station, and the development of humankind.