Small Satellite Technology Being Developed at Ottawa Incubator ‘Greenhouse’

Honeywell Smallsat constellation products - OneWeb Double Reaction Wheel Assembly, single puck Reaction Wheel assembly, Low cost rate sensor. Credit: Honeywell.

Honeywell Aerospace recently opened a local incubator, dubbed the “Greenhouse”, to reduce the cost and time to create technologies for small satellites, the company said Tuesday (Feb. 26) at an announcement at an office on Elgin Street.

A group of about 35 people gathered for the brief discussion on the fourth floor of a building overlooking the National Arts Centre, in Ottawa’s downtown. The office tables hosted models of past Honeywell projects, including a tabletop James Webb Space Telescope. Honeywell’s Com Dev unit developed the Fine Guidance Sensor and Near-Infrared Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) instruments that are critical for precise observations of Webb, which will launch in 2021.

Small satellites, and in particular a type of satellite called CubeSat that is based on standard measurements, have proved extremely popular in the last five or so years. Their low cost allows them to be deployed in constellations, providing more frequent coverage of target areas than a traditional geostationary satellite. While these constellations must be replenished constantly – small satellites travel in low Earth orbit and may fall back within months or a couple of years – the upside is the next generation of satellites hosts even more advanced imaging and tracking technology.

Honeywell On-axis all aluminum 25 cm Telescope – Low cost precision mirror telescope target for image, Quantum Key Distribution and Geo feeder links
Honeywell On-axis all aluminum 25 cm Telescope – Low cost precision mirror telescope target for image, Quantum Key Distribution and Geo feeder links. Credit: Honeywell.

Honeywell has seen the demand for large satellites reduce and small satellites ramp up, said Andrew Csizmar, director of the Greenhouse, while geostationary units plunged. “In previous years it was very high, 24 to 25, but it’s been reduced by less than half,” he said in an interview. But the company’s focus on component manufacturing will allow them to use the products for multiple markets, which should be useful if the market demand shifts again to larger satellites, he added.

The company chose to use their existing facilities on Terry Fox Drive in Kanata – the west end of Ottawa – to use existing employees and expertise in the area, and to attract university students in Ottawa and nearby Montreal. There are roughly 50 to 60 employees working on the project underneath 17 supervisory managers, with plans to expand as Honeywell ramps up its customer base. The eventual goal is to target the prime integrators such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing, although Honeywell will begin by focusing its efforts on smaller customers.

In 2016, Honeywell bought out Com Dev, a Cambridge, Ont.-based company that was known for manufacturing satellite components in virtually all working satellites at the time. That expertise, coupled with Honeywell’s extensive aerospace work on component manufacturing, will both be brought to bear in the new greenhouse.

One prime example of that is Webb, Csizmar said. The same tracking control system to target the telescope on distant stars and galaxies could be useful in small satellites, because “it’s the same challenge, from a technology building block perspective, for what you need for laser communications,” he said.

Some of the key technologies Honeywell will develop in the Greenhouse will include inter-satellite links, optical communications and a range of control products such as reaction wheels, navigation, sensing, star trackers and magnetometers.

Honeywell Off-axis 10 cm telescope – Targeted volume manufacturing of optical comms for the constellation market
Honeywell Off-axis 10 cm telescope – Targeted volume manufacturing of optical comms for the constellation market. Credit: Honeywell.

Editorial Note: The story was modified to change the wording CubeSat in the 3rd paragraph from “CubeSats travel in low Earth orbit and may fall back within months or a couple of years” to “small satellites travel in low Earth orbit and may fall back within months or a couple of years.”

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About Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell
Is SpaceQ's Associate Editor as well as a business and science reporter, researcher and consultant. She recently received her Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota and is communications Instructor instructor at Algonquin College.