Raytheon's Business Behind the Blue Marble

©NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring

A Blue Marble image of the Earth.

How does one keep the government as a reference client even in the face of declining budgets? This is the problem Raytheon has been trying to solve ever since the recession started, according to executives interviewed by SpaceRef Monday at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.

The answer begins with a story. The new iconic image for the Earth these days is called Blue Marble, a picture of the planet released in January this year. The ultra high-resolution image has been making the rounds on the Internet for its visual impact alone. That picture, combined from a series of orbital passes by the Suomi NPP satellite, came courtesy of a Raytheon sensor aboard that satellite.

Company employees are so proud of the image that they have festooned iPhones and computer desktops with copies of it. One source told SpaceRef it's even being paraded to officials on Capitol Hill as an example of what an American company can accomplish, with the right support.

But looking ahead, the company now finds itself locked in competition with Lockheed Martin to build the next-generation "space fence" capable of tracking 150,000 to 200,000 objects in orbit through a field of ground-based S-band tracking.

It's supposed to be ready in 2017, and both Lockheed and Raytheon have received contracts to do preliminary testing and design. One of those two firms will soon be selected to build the system.

Raytheon's differentiator is 40 years of experience building large ground-based radars, said Scott Spence, Raytheon's director of the Space Fence Program, in an exclusive interview with SpaceRef.

"We think the ability to pull not only the products that we've used, but the people and the processes to do that, gives us a good advantage to be able to provide a cost-effective solution delivered on time."

Building on established strengths is one way Raytheon hopes to weather the storm of budget cuts. Another is to find priority projects that can provide recurring revenue and, thus, a measure of predictability for the balance sheet.

The Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) is an example of this. Raytheon is building the ground radar for the system, which is supposed to provide more accurate data for weather forecasting and disaster management.

JPSS is a compromise after the White House terminated a predecessor idea that would have integrated defense and civilian capabilities on one system. That last program was "behind schedule, over budget, and underperforming," according to a 2010 press release. JPSS falls under the purview of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with an equivalent system now underway for the military.

NPP, which took the Blue Marble image, is a proof-of-concept satellite for JPSS. Of course, it is not so much the pictures as the data behind it that concerns climatologists. The first of the two JPSS satellites will launch in 2016, if all goes to schedule.

"That's going to really establish a long-term relationship with NASA," said Warren Flynn, Raytheon's director for environmental sensing.

"The important thing about stability is predictability so we can start addressing some of NASA's needs and the country's needs for a stable, cost-effective program that really builds on (the next) 10 years. I think we're positioned to do that really well."

To attract the government, Raytheon will need to make sure its corporate objectives align with government objectives. To keep its business steady, it would also be useful for the company to have a game plan to use the experience from designing Space Fence to attract more business, even if it doesn't receive the contract.

But providing Raytheon can meet these objectives, NASA and other government agencies can serve as valuable reference clients and as a stream of recurring revenue for years to come.

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