Lockheed Martin announced a new network of experts dedicated to improving how we see from space. As the Optical Payload Center of Excellence embarks on its collaborative projects, we catch up with its Silicon Valley director, Eric Johnson, on how we’re advancing optical technology, and why it matters to all of us.

Q. What are payloads? Why do they matter?

Payloads are the reason we launch a satellite. Generally speaking, payloads give us the services we need from space. For example, on communication satellites, the payload is what enables receipt and transmission of signals. We watch TV because of payloads, we get navigation advice in the car because of payloads and see what’s happening in deep space because of payloads.

Q. What are optical payloads?

Optical payloads are those payloads that operate in the optical portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. When people think about optical payloads you can think about an x-ray machine, a camera, or one of those thermal sensors your contractor walks around with for measuring the temperature of your heating ducts. Anything that emits or reflects light or heat needs optical technology to capture and interpret the data.

Optical payloads are essential to everything from space exploration and farming to weather and archeology. This data comes from space telescopes like Hubble, which has helped us better understand the universe in which we live, and Earth science missions like LandSat, which delivers terrain information so farmers can plan crops. Optical payloads can be very sensitive and can detect the slightest changes in visible light or temperature from great distances.

Q. What does Lockheed Martin bring to this field?

We’ve been designing, building and operating optical payloads for over 50 years. What Lockheed Martin really brings to the table is our ability to blend the deep understanding we’ve gained over that 50-year history with industry-leading technology advancements that answer the difficult questions posed by scientists and government leaders. Lockheed Martin has the unique experience of creating payloads that continue to serve science and national security missions with data they need for critical decisions, every single day.

Q: What is a Center of Excellence? How does it work?

Lockheed Martin has a lot of experience in optical payloads. We wanted a better way of tapping those capabilities and talent. A Center of Excellence is like a specialty shop for a specific kind of work. By focusing energy on a specific area, like optical payloads, we can reduce cost, work more efficiently and build great products in a true team environment.

The Optical Payload Center of Excellence is a network of experts and integrated capabilities run out of Palo Alto. We are focused on advancing Lockheed Martin’s capability, efficiency and agility in optical technologies.

The best ideas come from a team, so we have a network that brings together expertsacross the nation, within Lockheed Martin and with our industry partners and leading research universities. We tap industry-leading talent in the fields of:  Line of sight controls, steering mirror technology, advanced thermal design, optical and structural design, manufacturing, testing and focal plane/focal plane electronics, just to name a few.

Q: How can this approach help develop optical payloads?

In order to rapidly address changing missions and customer priorities, we’re gathering the best minds to tackle two fronts: technical approaches and business imperatives. Where we can make a big difference is delivering our technical ideas in affordable and agile ways, and that’s where the business focus comes into play. We’re working to find that sweet spot where technical capability scales to meet changing cost and schedule requirements, and deliver the best overall solutions.

Q. What does the future look like for these kinds of payloads?

The future means change, and the rate of change is increasing every day. It’s only through seriously rethinking and retooling our approach now will we be able to effectively address the needs of our customers in the future.

We’re confident we can do it because we are completely integrating and highly leveraging other industry leading company initiatives like the Digital Tapestry. Digital threads integrate every step of development, from concept to production and sustainment. Using virtual worlds and additive manufacturing, we rapidly prototype for quick verification then send directly to machine shops, eliminating 2-D drawings. Lockheed Martin is already operating aspects of our overall business in this “factory of the future.” The Optical Payload Center of Excellence is working to apply those techniques to the development of our payloads. There has never really been a limit to how far we can go technically.  However, the current environment requires us to do it much more efficiently. We’re well on our way to carry out that vision.

Big ideas come in small packages. Lockheed Martin has produced large systems like Hubble, but we’re enabling much smaller optical systems for small sats, too. This micro-cryocooler cools optical sensors, something usually handled by a component more than twice its size.