Al develops business solutions with commercial and government agencies interested in communications and remote sensing space systems as well as space robotics and exploration systems. He has enjoyed a 25-year career at SSL in increasingly responsible positions, and has most recently helped to draw attention to the value of commercial satellite technologies and system solutions for government missions. During the course of his career, he has worked on 13 missions and launch campaigns, many of which deployed cutting-edge communications and remote sensing systems.
Al holds patents in the field of attitude control systems, and was responsible for early telerobotics research for the International Space Station. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering and a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Mindy Emsley, Space Tech Conference Director, interviews Al about SSL’s recent collaborations with the US Government and NASA, the key challenges and opportunities he faces in the space industry, and more. Plus what he is most looking forward to at this years Space Tech Expo and Conference!
ME: Mindy Emsley
AT: Al Tadros
ME: Please tell us about your role as Vice President, Civil and DoD Business, Space Systems/Loral. What are your key focus areas and responsibilities?
AT: My goal at SSL is to bring the value of commercial satellite technologies and system solutions to government missions. We have extensive experience developing reliable GEO communications missions and we have a tremendous depth of technical resources at the company. Our expertise ranges from propulsion and power systems to radio frequency communications and robotics, and we are known for our responsiveness, agility and innovation. My background is in spacecraft dynamics and controls analysis as well as telerobotics. We are currently building more than 20 large geostationary satellites for commercial customers, and we are also working with NASA, DARPA and the US Air Force on a range of missions and studies.
ME: What would you say are the key challenges and opportunities you face at present?
AT: One of the biggest challenges for me, as well as for the entire space industry, is bringing acceptance to hosted payloads. Hosted payloads allow governments, scientific institutions and organizations the benefit of having their mission payload on board a geostationary earth orbit (GEO) satellite with shorter lead times at lower costs than dedicated missions. Hosted payloads have the additional benefit of providing the opportunity for space access to entities that might not have the resources for a dedicated launch or orbital position.
I believe a tremendous opportunity that the commercial space industry has to offer is in the area of solar electric propulsion (SEP). Current power systems and electric propulsion technologies are enabling a number of commercial missions and can be leveraged for government missions as well. NASA is investing in these technologies and will be demonstrating this capability for exploration missions leading up to manned missions to Mars.
ME: How does the US military and government benefit from the commercial space industry?
AT: Commercial satellite operators are very focused on the business case for each satellite they launch, and reliability and quick turnaround are essential to the return on investment. For example, there is no room for an outage in the middle of the Super Bowl, so companies such as SSL provide highly reliable communications satellites on two- to three-year schedules from design to launch. The US Government can benefit by leveraging the flexibility and volume production of commercial manufacturers, which allows for the best value that can be provided today.
To achieve this, commercial industry supports an extensive supply chain with evolving capabilities and volume production. US Government programs can benefit from the iterative development cycle for these subsystems. One example is Li-ion batteries. The commercial space industry developed, tested and has been using Li-ion batteries for over a dozen years now. This is a well-established technology that can benefit more US Government missions.
ME: What were some of SSL’s most recent collaborations with the US Government and NASA?
AT: Last year SSL was selected to conduct Phase I studies in the robotics and SEP domains for the NASA Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The goal of NASA’s ARM project is to identify, capture and redirect a near-Earth asteroid to a stable orbit around the Moon, where astronauts who will be launched in the Orion capsule will collect samples from the asteroid. ARM is first and foremost a technology demonstration mission, employing capabilities extensible to NASA’s future exploration missions, including human missions to Mars. For the Phase I studies, SSL examined the adaptation of commercial spacecraft for the Asteroid Redirect Vehicle, as well as investigating how space robotics could be used to extract a five-meter boulder from the surface of a large asteroid (ARM “Option B”).
Another project in which SSL is collaborating with the US Government is the DARPA Phoenix Payload Orbital Delivery System (PODS). The goal of PODS is to enable cost-effective regular access to GEO for small payloads. As part of the program, SSL aims to accommodate an ejectable 90-150kg payload on commercial GEO satellites. The PODS payload would ultimately be released from the commercial spacecraft to accomplish its mission as a free flyer in space.
SSL is also teaming with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to host the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) on a commercial satellite. The NASA LCRD team and SSL are developing the interface and accommodations for this hosted payload to be integrated with the SSL 1300 satellite platform. As the optical modules and ground stations are in development, SSL is working with its commercial customers to identify an appropriate host satellite for the demonstration. The two optical heads and related payload units will allow optical relay between two ground stations or a spacecraft and ground station.
ME: How do laser communications differ from more traditional radio frequency communications commonly used today?
AT: Optical communications use an uncongested portion of spectrum compared with the radio frequency communications typically used to transmit data from space. Additionally, laser communications have the potential to provide much higher data rates than RF, allowing us to obtain more of the vast amounts of data that are being gathered from orbiting satellites or distant planetary probes, including images and video. Also, when compared with high-bandwidth RF links, lasercom terminals are smaller in size, weight and power consumption, which makes them inherently suitable as hosted payloads over a broad range of satellites and spacecraft. We see optical communications as complementary to RF communications and envision a combination being used on future satellites.
ME: We’ve heard that SSL also worked with NASA on the highly successful LADEE mission completed last year. Can you tell us about that?
AT: The Lunar Atmosphere Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE) spacecraft, managed by NASA’s Ames Research Center, successfully completed its mission in April 2014. SSL provided a cost-effective bi-propellant propulsion system based on the mission-critical system used in its commercial satellites. The propulsion system we provided worked very accurately, requiring no course adjustments during the lunar insertion maneuver. This propulsion system worked so well that NASA Ames incorporated it into its Phobos And Deimos & Mars Environment (PADME) mission, which was just submitted to NASA’s Discovery Announcement of Opportunity. PADME is an exciting application of the very successful LADEE mission approach.
ME: Which applications offer the best commercial outsourcing opportunities?
AT: Satellite constellations and LEO satellites offer a great opportunity for commercial outsourcing. Commercial satellite manufacturers can use their design expertise and equipment to create a satellite that can be successfully replicated as many times as necessary at a low cost per satellite. For example, last year SSL was awarded a contract to produce 13 very innovative small LEO satellites for Skybox Imaging. Our high-volume production capability and extensive experience is helping Skybox to cost-effectively scale its fleet, while allowing it to focus on prototyping next-generation systems.
ME: We’re looking forward to seeing you at Space Tech Conference; can you tell us what you’re most looking forward to at the show?
AT: The Space Tech Conference is getting traction as an important West Coast event for the industry, and it attracts an interesting mix of attendees and speakers. This is a crucial time for industry and government to combine resources to push forward our leadership in space, and events like this help advance the industry. At this year’s conference I look forward to seeing colleagues I know well, and to meeting new friends who share my passion for expanding our space capabilities.
Al will be speaking during the 11.00am — 12.20pm panel on Tuesday May 19 “How Can the US Military and Government Benefit from the Dynamic Commercial Space Industry?“