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Freeze, Burn, Shake: Extreme Testing Ensures Satellite Equipment Will Withstand Space

Photo by NOAA via Getty Images

This article is supplied and sponsored by Raytheon

Protecting the military's most sensitive information begins in the most unusual of places. Deep within the leafy suburbs of Boston is a laboratory that could best be described as Mother Nature's lair. There, engineers using an environmental chamber the size of a living room simulate almost every weather condition imaginable.

Intense heat, shivering cold and extreme humidity are routinely served up at the Raytheon facility in Marlborough, Mass., where the company designs and engineers satellite terminals and dishes for the U.S. Department of Defense.

"We inflict a lot of pain," said Dennis Maguire, who manages environmental testing for Raytheon. "Our equipment takes a beating here, so when they get delivered to the military they're ready for anything."

The terminals and antennas are an integral part of a very complex system the military uses to communicate.

The armed services use satellites to beam everything from email to live video sent by unmanned aircraft. That data has to be kept from prying eyes, requiring narrow beams, encryption and machinery that can stay locked on to receivers hundreds of miles away. Raytheon has been making protected satellite communications equipment for more than three decades, and its devices are found on ships, submarines, Humvees, airplanes and military bases around the world.

Today the Waltham, Mass.-based company stands as the only defense firm that is actively producing protected terminals for the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force.

Recently, the Air Force awarded the company a contract for another protected satellite system called the Global Aircrew Strategic Network terminal.

Raytheon will eventually assemble that terminal at the company's factory in Florida, where all of its protected satellite terminals are built.

But first, all designs have to go through rigorous environmental testing in Marlborough to make sure they’re up to real-world conditions.

"We'll go through dozens of tests depending on what equipment we're testing," Maguire said.

All the equipment must go through temperature simulations that feel like the Arizona desert in August in one extreme, and as cold as the South Pole in the other.

"We're talking a range of 185 degrees to minus 70 Fahrenheit," Maguire said.

The satellite dishes, some of which weigh several hundred pounds, have to stare at the sun all day, so they also endure solar testing to make sure the electronics inside will stay true. The equipment must also withstand the normal to-and-fro of transportation. So Maguire's technicians fasten the hardware to a shimmying platform that moves at a variety of speeds – from as slow as a rocking ship to as abrupt as an earthquake.

Finally, after nearly a month of enduring everything Mother Nature has to offer, the equipment is deemed ready for service to the nation.

"Let there be no doubt: When the hardware leaves here, they are ready for anything," Maguire said.

Click here to see videos on the evolution and use of protected military satellite communications.

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