There’s a key piece of Irvine on NASA’s pathbreaking mission headed toward the moon, thanks to small satellite maker Terran Orbital Corp.
Terran (NYSE: LLAP) provided the Lunar InfraRed (LunIR) spacecraft, a small satellite designed to inspect the moon’s surface temperature on the closely watched mission Artemis 1.
The spacecraft is called a “6u satellite” and is described as being “shoebox-sized”—ultra small compared to the bulkier satellites star watchers have been accustomed to seeing shot into orbit in the past.
The Lunar InfraRed imaging spacecraft, also known as LunIR, is the result of a joint effort between Lockheed Martin and Terran Orbital.
“LunIR will help us understand the truly infinite opportunities in lunar and Martian travel,” said Marc Bell, Terran Orbital co-founder, chairman and chief executive.
“For LunIR, all the satellite design and integration work were done here in Irvine,” Austin Williams, Terran Orbital’s chief technology officer, told the Business Journal on Aug. 22.
Lockheed Martin developed LunIR’s infrared sensor and a special cooler to keep sensor temperatures low and in operation both day and night, mapping the lunar surface, detecting materials, and collecting “thermal signatures.”
Terran’s Williams added: “Lockheed Martin delivered the infrared payload here to Irvine where we integrated it and delivered to Florida for mating with the launch vehicle.”
After the lunar flyby, LunIR will conduct technology demonstrations related to deep-space operations for future Mars missions.
The unmanned Artemis 1 flight was initially scheduled to launch on Aug. 30, but NASA scrapped that date due to a tech issue. As of last Friday, the flight, taking place on a 322-foot-tall rocket, was expected to reattempt its launch on Saturday, Sept. 3.
The Artemis program is expected to have an ultimate price tag of $93 billion.
Terran Orbital guides LunIR via a “moon camera” vision guidance system that digests a Lockheed Martin algorithm to locate pointing targets.
Lockheed also provided the overall systems engineering and mission planning.
“Terran Orbital designed, built, and integrated the spacecraft and will run mission operations,” the company said in a statement on Aug. 23.
The LunIR sensor could be an important tool for astronauts returning to the moon, and going beyond to Mars, according to Terran.
LunIR is Terran Orbital’s second lunar satellite, with the moon-bound Capstone being the first.
“Capstone was also designed, built, tested and delivered out of Irvine. Both are going to the moon,” Williams said.
Since NASA’s launch of Capstone on July 7, Terran Orbital’s mission operations team “successfully established communications with the satellite and is now utilizing groundbreaking low-energy navigation technologies to guide the satellite as far as 1.5 million kilometers from Earth before returning it to a near linear halo orbit, which is basically an elliptical orbit around the moon,” Bell told analysts in August.
While Terran Orbital is headquartered in Boca Raton, Fla., the majority of the company’s employees are based in Irvine: 312 locally out of 395 companywide.
The company moved up two spots to No. 15 on this week’s list of the largest aerospace and defense contractors, based on local employees (see list, page 17).
Terran leases nearly 90,000 square feet at the 400 Spectrum Center tower in Irvine. It also has nearly another 100,000 square feet of manufacturing space at two sites nearby in the city, some of which is still being prepped for use.
Along with NASA and Lockhead Martin, other customers of the company include Lockheed Martin, the Department of Defense, the intelligence community and the European Space Agency as well as numerous commercial customers, officials say.
More growth’s in the cards, according to Bell.
“We’re increasing our headcount by about 10% a month,” he told analysts in mid-August. “As we get on these bigger, more exciting programs, we’re getting a lot of people who want to leave the big primes and come work for an exciting startup like us.”
Artemis is the latest in a long string of successes for Terran Orbital.
The Irvine operations of the company provided six small satellites for a pioneering mission into space earlier this year, in the latest sign of growth for the local aerospace company, and another example of Orange County’s growing role in space-related work.
The satellites blasted off on May 25 aboard Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, as part of what was called the Transporter-5 mission.
Terran says its single brand name now covers all of the company’s units, including the former Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems Inc. in Irvine.
Terran went public via a reverse merger with a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, in March. The deal initially valued the company around $1.6 billion.
The company’s valuation stood around $540 million as of Aug 30.
Terran last month hosted U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations General John “Jay” Raymond at the company’s facilities in Irvine. The visit took place on Tuesday, Aug. 16, and included tours, briefings and conversation.