Jenny Barna

Spire Global launch manager Jenny Barna

On the launch pad

BQ Scotland editor Peter Ranscombe hears from Spire Global launch manager Jenny Barna how nanosatellites built in Glasgow are being sent into orbit around the Earth.

Scotland has a proud history of producing some of the most famous ships that have sailed the seas. From the Cutty Sark and the Discovery through to the Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mary, the shipyards of the Clyde, the Forth and along the East Coast have launched boats that have ruled the waves. Now Glasgow is becoming known for creating a somewhat smaller breed of vessel. Nanosatellites, a type of orbital vehicle that’s small enough to fit in a bread basket, are being built in the city and then blasted up through the atmosphere into orbit around the planet.

And the person in charge of getting many of those satellites safely to their celestial destination is Jenny Barna, launch manager at Spire Global, a satellite-powered data company based in San Francisco, which has a major base in Glasgow. Spire’s team of engineers in the city create equipment for a wide range of applications, from tracking aircraft and ships through to monitoring weather patterns.

It’s down to Barna to find space for those satellites to make it up into orbit. “My job is to know who’s launching all over the world, when they’re launching, who they’re launching with, how much extra capacity there might be, what orbit they’re going into and whether they’re willing to take secondary payloads on that launch,” she says. “There is a pool of around 100 rockets being launched into space each year, but there are only a handful with room on them for nanosatellites. Some of those rockets will be operated by governments or the military and will be unable to take commercial secondary payloads, while other launches will be into orbits that we can’t use or will come from countries like China, which we can’t work with.

“One launch a month is ideal for Spire. We have 70 launch slots booked for 2017 across 18 rockets. In the middle of 2015, our manifesto for 2016 was to launch once every single month, but unfortunately delays are a big part of this industry and so only three launches actually took place during 2016.

“All those 2016 launches have now gone into 2017. It should be a very busy year for us.” Some of the risks associated with sending satellites into orbit are obvious – the polite word that’s used in the industry is an ‘anomaly’ when a rocket blows-up on the launch pad or while it’s climbing up through the sky. Even the Russian Soyuz rocket, the reliable backbone of the industry, has suffered anomalies. Other risks are less obvious. A large part of Barna’s job is working out how realistic a company’s launch schedule really is – will it go on the date it is supposed to go or will it be delayed? Launches can also fall foul of geopolitical instability. Russia’s ability to import components for rockets has been affected by sanctions imposed following its military incursions into Ukraine.

The way Barna manages those risks is to use a broad range of companies to send Spire’s satellites into space and to place those satellites into a wide range of orbits around the Earth, instead of relying on every object being on a polar or equatorial flight path. “We are launching with everybody – wherever we can get a ride, we’ll try,” she explains. “We’ve launched with Japan, India, Russia and a couple of companies in the United States.

“We’ve launched on Atlas V rockets with Lockheed Martin and Boeing’s joint venture, United Launch Alliance (ULA), we’ve launched on Antares rockets, which Orbital builds, and we’re booked on Space X launches and other vehicles. We launch with virtually everybody.

“As a secondary customer, we have no control over the launch schedules. All we can do is sit and wait.

“The primary customer could have delays, the launch vehicle could have delays, or there could be business reasons why a launch is delayed for a year. You could be waiting for six months, or a year, or two years, for a launch.

“I spend a lot of time on schedule intelligence in my job. Trying to know whether a launch date is ‘real’ – that factors into whether we book a launch, whether we think it will really happen when they say it will happen.” Barna adds: “We launch as often as we can and we launch in small quantities – that’s very different to other companies running constellations of satellites. By spreading our launches across many different vehicles and many different orbits, we aren’t as heavily affected if there’s an anomaly or a delay.”

Before joining Spire in September 2014, Barna worked as an engineer with first Orbital and then Space Systems Loral (SSL). Her career has given her an insight into the workings of both ‘old space’ companies, which produce massive pieces of very expensive hardware, and ‘new space’ companies, which are more agile in their operations. “The pace at which new space companies move is totally incomparable to old space companies – it’s a whole different ball game,” Barna says. “We can build a satellite in days, run a whole launch campaign within a week and then turn around and do it again and again and again.

“Having a launch every month is something that we’re capable of doing because we’re so quick and so nimble. We don’t have the mission assurance requirements that are built into government or military legacy programmes.

“We’re building very cheap – almost disposable – satellites that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, not hundreds of millions of dollars, so we can afford to take risks and move a lot quicker. If one satellite out of one hundred fails then it shouldn’t affect the performance of our constellation of satellites.

“Most legacy companies are building one satellite that may cost upwards of half a billion dollars. They may have been working on it for up to five years and they may have booked a whole launch vehicle, which costs a further hundred million dollars, so all-in, you’re approaching one billion dollars, so that spacecraft must absolutely work.

“It’s the difference between ‘perfect’ and ‘good enough’. It’s a real luxury to be able to move fast and take risks and keep innovating. We don’t have to spend six months reviewing every tiny change to a spacecraft – if it’s a good idea then just do it.”