Speaker Spotlight: Tim Maclay, Director of Mission Systems Engineering, OneWeb

Posted on May 04, 2016


Tim is the Director of Mission Systems Engineering at OneWeb, a company preparing to launch the world’s largest satellite constellation to provide affordable, global internet access. Previously he was the VP of Systems Engineering at Orbcomm, where he spent nearly 20 years in the development and operation of the company’s low-Earth-orbit constellation of M2M data communication satellites. He was responsible for the constellation architecture and network performance, and served as the flight dynamics lead for the deployment of 60 satellites over nine launch campaigns. Tim also founded a successful consulting company, has served on technical committees for the National Research Council and NASA’s Engineering Safety Center, and currently serves on the board of the Hypervelocity Impact Society. He began his career with Kaman Sciences, working in the area of space safety research, after earning an MSc and PhD in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Colorado. He also holds a BSc in Physics and Math from Bucknell University, and has over 20 publications related to astrodynamics and orbital debris to his name.

Ahead of Tim’s talk at Space Tech Conference, Conference Director Mindy Emsley caught up with him to discuss the challenges he currently faces, plans for OneWeb’s satellite constellation, and how One Web plans to deorbit its satellites at the end of their lifecycle.


ME: Please tell us about your role as Director of Mission Systems Engineering. What are your key focus areas and responsibilities?

TM: As a systems engineering group, we are responsible for coordinating system requirements, conducting technical trade studies and risk assessments, and ensuring that the system will meet the company’s business objectives. One particular focus area is the development of safe operating practices regarding collision avoidance, debris mitigation and space situational awareness (SSA) data-sharing.

ME: What would you say are the key challenges and opportunities you face at present?

TM: Although there are a number of technical and programmatic challenges that come with any commercial satellite venture, perhaps the most unique aspect of OneWeb’s system is its scale. With an initial constellation of 648 satellites, OneWeb will be applying large-scale production approaches to satellite manufacturing, and incorporating advanced levels of automation into satellite and network operations. These are exciting opportunities that bring into practice established methods applied on a large scale to One Web’s constellation.

ME: OneWeb has selected Airbus as its joint-venture partner for the production of 900 satellites. I believe the first 10 satellites will be built in France, with the remainder being built in the USA. What’s the reason for this? And what can you tell us about the plans and capabilities of the manufacturing plant in the USA?

TM: The first 10 pilot satellites are being designed and built at the Airbus-OneWeb Satellites joint-venture facility in Toulouse while we lay the groundwork for the main manufacturing plant in Florida. These first pilot satellites will be used to validate the satellite design as well as the production and testing processes that will be employed during full-capacity production.

Set to open in 2017 in Florida, the satellite factory will be a high-volume manufacturing facility with a footprint of more than 100,000ft2 and employing approximately 250 people. It will include state-of-the-art robotics, inspection methods, test equipment and automated data acquisition systems to support end-to-end I&T activities. At its peak, the factory will support a production rate of up to one to two satellites per day.

ME: The trend toward more and more commercial players being active in LEO, not to mention the growth of mega constellations such as those planned by your company, is increasing congestion and highlighting the importance of robust SSA capabilities. What is OneWeb’s position on working with government and industry to improve future space operations? 

TM: Technology development trends and high levels of interest from both government and private sponsors have led to an increase in the number and diversity of commercial space enterprises in recent years, particularly those making use of low-Earth orbits. With this increase in activity, it is essential for government and industry to work together on the establishment of new and meaningful safe-operating standards and principles, including those related to the sharing of ephemeris and maneuvering information. OneWeb has been promoting the need for greater levels of collaboration and data accuracy in conversations with DoD, NASA, regulators and industry associations, and fully supports the objectives of non-profit and commercial organizations such as the Space Data Association and AGI’s ComSpOC.

ME: What do you think are the key technologies yet needed to more effectively manage congestion and promote peaceful utilization of space? Are active debris removal systems likely to be commercialized in the near term?

TM: The largest collisional threat to low-Earth orbit (LEO) operations comes not from other operating satellites, nor even from cataloged objects, but from the much larger population of debris that goes untracked. So although operator collaboration and responsible practices are essential, key technologies needed to ensure sustainable activities in LEO are those that extend tracking capabilities to smaller sizes and increase the accuracy of trajectory predictions. The development of the new Space Fence represents a dramatic step in that direction, and I’d like to see additional investment in our understanding of the solar and atmospheric dynamics that currently limit propagation accuracies in LEO.

There is also some very encouraging work in active debris removal. It remains to be seen, however, which techniques being proposed will be technically sound and with economics capable of supporting a commercial service.

ME: What is your plan for deorbiting satellites at the end of their lifecycle?

TM: OneWeb satellites will be completely deorbited within five years of decommissioning, using their high-efficiency electric ion propulsion systems. Starting from an operating altitude of 1,200km, each satellite will first be removed from the constellation by reducing the altitude to ~1,100km; then the perigee will be lowered sufficiently to ensure a rapid demise.

ME: We’re looking forward to seeing you at the Space Tech Conference; can you tell us what you’re most looking forward to at the show?

TM: I am very interested in a number of topics on the conference agenda, and particularly look forward to a great discussion with my fellow panelists and attendees on SSA collaboration.

You can hear more from Tim Maclay, Director of Mission Systems Engineering, One Web, on the Commercial, Government and Military Collaboration on Space Situational Awareness panel at 9:30am on May 25.


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