What’s in a name? Sometimes projects are called exactly the way they make us feel. SMILE is such a project. In December 2018, Airborne completed their contribution to the European Commission Horizon 2020 project called SMall Innovative Launcher for Europe (SMILE). A number of parties were involved in this. What was in it for Airborne? Time to interview Bastiaan Bom, Composites Automation Engineer at Airborne and Anders Brødsjø, Technology Manager at Airborne who were both involved in the project.
Why did the European Union start this project?
Bastiaan: “There is an increasing demand for launch capacity of small satellites. Typically, small satellites are launched as a piggyback or ride share with bigger satellites. The problem with this is that the ridesharing satellite can only be launched in the same orbit as the main satellite. Furthermore, a delay in the construction or launch of the main satellite also means delay of the secondary satellite. “
So, what are the current trends in the satellite launching industry?
Bastiaan: “We see lots of initiatives offering a dedicated launcher to launch these small satellites. One of the aims of SMILE is to develop critical technologies to make this possible. I think automation is key in order to construct small satellite launchers and make them affordable.”
Anders: “An important trend is of course the commercial NewSpace market that requires disruptive solutions in terms of price level, production capacity as well as reliability. While manual manufacturing is still the global standard for the composites industry, you need to automate production processes in order to meet these challenges. As the demand for industrialisation of composite production is growing exponentially, Airborne brings the composites industry to the next level applying automated and digital manufacturing. Therefore we combine our knowhow on composites manufacturing with process automation and digitalization.”
How will the Smart Manufacturing/ Industry 4.0 approach help the small sat launcher structures market?
Bastiaan: “The first company to launch small satellites in this way is Rocket Lab with their Electron rocket. In a few years they want to launch one rocket every week. With such high volume production, it requires a completely different approach to composite production. “
Anders: “Exactly. Since the satellite market is in transition in terms of commercialisation and moving towards to smaller satellites, we are supporting the small sat market trend for a long time now. These last years, we have developed affordable composite structures for small launchers. Through the use of smart automation we are now able to address the challenges and therefore provide low CAPEX, flexible, scalable and transferable robotic solutions.”
Since when is Airborne involved in SMILE?
Anders: “As Airborne we participated in the SMILE project from the beginning. The official kickoff was in December 2015: This is when we started the development of our second generation Automated Tape Laying (ATL) system.”
Bastiaan: “Our Automated Tape Laying solution was the first automated system designed from scratch to be suitable for large volume production. In the last year of SMILE we focused on the design and manufacturing of the structure of third stage of the rocket. It consists of three main components: The payload structure, which is where the satellite is mounted on top of. Furthermore, a cylindrical outer shell which mounts the oxidizer tank inside, and the engine thrust frame to mount the hybrid engine developed by Nammo.”
Bastiaan: “Yes, it was really an international team effort: Nammo from Norway supplied us with the sizing of the hybrid engine and feed system so we could make a conceptual design of the structure. Then, the Greek engineers from Heron did all the structural calculations so we could determine for example the wall thicknesses and in which places we had to put reinforcements. There was also some support closer to home. Innovative Solutions in Space (ISIS) designed and built a new type of payload adapter, which holds the satellite during launch and releases it in orbit. Terma and the Netherlands Aerospace Laboratory (NLR) designed the avionics system that will be mounted inside the rocket. PLD Space and DLR focussed on the development and testing of liquid rocket engine technology.”
What did you want to accomplish?
Bastiaan: “We wanted to see whether we could make launcher structures with our automated laminating cell. Normally, automated production of large structures is done using fibre placement, which uses many thin tapes of prepreg, whereas we used a single 150mm wide tape. This wider material is significantly cheaper, but makes it a lot more difficult to make complex three-dimensional shapes.
Anders: “The approach we took was to lay down the material on a flat table. After layup, the material can be cut into the desired shape, formed into the final 3D shape and cured. This enables us to use cheap material even for the most complex shapes. Also using more affordable production machines.”
Bastiaan: “Another important aspect was the use of Out-of-autoclave materials. In Aerospace, the standard is to use an autoclave to cure the composite components. However, the investment cost of an autoclave is quite high, especially for large rocket components. With out-of-autoclave material, we can use a much cheaper oven or even a heated mould to cure the components.”
Why was that important?
Bastiaan: “Cost-effective structural components are especially important for small launchers since there is less payload per launch and thus relatively more structural mass.”
Anders: “Furthermore, there are many mega constellations that will be launched in the next several years. I think that the initial launches will likely be done on big rockets, launching several at a time. However, it is expected that these mega constellations will need replenishment of their satellites, due to their limited lifespan. Affordable small sat launchers will be key in providing this.”
There must have been many highlights in this project.
Anders: “ For me the highlight of this project was the opportunity to work together with so many talented people from all over Europe, designing a small launcher from scratch”
Bastiaan: “One of the main highlights of this year for me was the display of our first demonstrator at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Bremen (see photo). This is where we really noticed the large amount of interest in our manufacturing process.”
What was in it for Airborne?
Bastiaan: “Making the manufacturing process more mature. The project gave us insights in the most efficient production of small sat components, and how to develop an entire automated factory on-site. Thanks to the SMILE project we are able to significantly shorten the development.
Anders: “At Airborne we have several decades of experience in the engineering and manufacturing of composites for Space and Aerospace. In order to lower the manufacturing cost, and to meet production rates around one launcher every week, the production should be automated as much as possible. So to me, it is only a logical step to also be a manufacturing partner for small sat launchers.
OK, most proud moment in the process… Go!
Anders: “To stand beside the full scale demonstrator, seeing the progress we have achieved over the last three years.”
Bastiaan: “Finishing the demonstrator in time and within budget!”
This blog was also posted on LinkedIN.