Extreme lightweight construction: Market for lighter and lighter satellites grows / Interview with Claude Maack, GRADEL
As an innovation engine, space travel drives many disciplines to new record performances. Claude Maack, managing director of the Luxembourg-based aerospace suppliers GRADEL, explains how stringent material, safety and reliability requirements are turning spacecraft and satellites into pioneering ultra-lightweight-construction products. The company will also present at the Lightweight Technologies Forum from 10 to 12 September.
Mr. Maack, ultra-lightweight construction has always been a key technology in aerospace. What’s the driver that’s pushing lightweight construction even further ahead right now?
Claude Maack: Lightweight construction will always be a trend in space travel because weight costs a lot of money here: you’ll currently pay about $7,000 for each kilogramme of weight you transport into space. Lightweight construction helps to increase the payload of a rocket, making it possible to take more satellites into space with each launch. Plus, it lets you save fuel and thus costs. But lightweight construction in the aerospace industry has a long way to go.
Space travel is dominated by risk minimisation. That means long series of simulations and tests. The biggest challenge is convincing customers, such as satellite operators, for example, to deploy a new technology. Even if we can show them all the necessary qualifications, there are, after all, no practical experiences yet. So we have to persuade customers that lightweight construction technologies are safe and add so much value that the investments will be worthwhile. What’s in demand is lightweight construction at affordable prices.
GRADEL products are deployed in many space programmes. In what areas do you see the biggest potential for lightweight construction?
I see a big market in medium-sized and smaller satellites as well as with the nanosatellites, which as a group are supposed to cover telecommunications and internet connections on earth in future. The need for such satellites will grow.
What special requirements are there for aerospace materials?
With a satellite, all components are exposed to extreme conditions. Right from the launch of the rocket, they have to withstand enormous acceleration forces. The burden continues in space: while the mechanical load is low here, all materials must withstand radiation exposure – and for an average service life of 15 years at that. Then there are the high temperature differences from minus 185 to plus 200 degrees Celsius – alternating every couple of hours from one extreme to the other. The absolute vacuum in space also puts a big strain on the materials because degassing of the materials must be prevented at all cost.
What technologies do you see in the lead when it comes to lighter components?
Definitely fibre composites. Regarding the technology, we have opted for a three-dimensional winding technology. “xFK in 3D” is a development from our partner AMC in which carbon-fibre-reinforced plastics are wound three-dimensionally and geometrically free. There’s currently no technology that makes building easier.
Why did you choose this exact technology?
In space travel, you need small quantities, often even just prototypes. The “xFK in 3D” winding process is a competitive, extremely reliable alternative to 3-D printing. Besides being low in weight, components must also be highly rigid – both factors impact the overall concept of a satellite. Our xFK components are currently being qualified, and we’re involving the European Space Agency ESA in this process. Tests with thermal load cycles will follow next. If they’re successful, we’ll build the first structures.
What’s the significance of digitalisation in development?
We work in a closed digital process chain. That way we can show customers in advance what the finished component can do, simulate deployment and prove that we’ve mastered the technology.
Won’t those many satellites turn into a problem at some point when they turn into space junk after their useable service life?
Here, too, lightweight construction can be a solution: when decommissioned satellites are brought down in a controlled crash, objects with a low mass can burn up completely upon re-entry.
How do you think the market for aerospace products will develop in the medium term?
I think the market will come under great cost pressure. Companies such a SpaceX are wreaking havoc with existing structures. Plus, the aerospace industry is moving faster and faster. Satellites and their possible technical uses must be more flexible these days. It used to be the case that a satellite would have the same function for 15 years; today, it must be able to take on new tasks after just six months. That means the OEMs have to reposition themselves, as well. However, we at GRADEL feel we’re well positioned in order to respond quickly to the new requirements.
You’re currently conducting a study together with AMC about the future of lightweight construction in space travel, which you will present at the Lightweight Technologies Forum in Stuttgart in September. What’s the purpose of the study?
The aerospace market will grow. We’re interested in determining the potential of integrative, systemic lightweight construction and the materials that are right for it. To that end, we want to create an overview of the current state of the market and the technologies.
Mr. Maack, thank you for the interview.
About GRADEL SÀRL:
GRADEL has been developing special-purpose equipment and tailored solutions for the space domain since 2008. Our main product group in space is Mechanical Ground Support Equipment (MGSE), which includes multipurpose trolleys, horizontal and vertical lifting devices, integration stands and adapter rings for assembly, integration and tests of all types and sizes of satellites, and the equipping of CATRs – facilities for the testing of satellite antennas. In addition, GRADEL develops such flight hardware as brackets, interface rings, cable feedthroughs and small deployable elements for satellites. Customers include Airbus Defence & Space, OHB System AG and Thales Alenia Space. GRADEL equipment is used in the following space programmes, among others: Alphabus, EDRS, Electra, Esail, Euclid, Eurostar Neo, ExoMars, Juice, Moonmission M4, MTG, Proba3, SGEO and Solar Orbiter.
About XFK IN 3D:
xFK in 3D is a trademark of AMC. This process is a highly flexible, almost completely customisable, affordable and sustainable fibre-composite technology for the winding of components. When the (glass, carbon, basalt and many other natural) fibres of composite materials (“xFK”) are aligned according to the desired component functions with respect to their load cases and are produced in three dimensions (“xFK in 3D”), spatial, ultra-light structural components arise. The advantages of the process range from force and stress absorption to minimal material waste. GRADEL is the exclusive partner of AMC for “xFK in 3D” in aerospace.
About Lightweight Technologies Forum:
The Lightweight Technologies Forum (LTF) at COMPOSITES EUROPE (10 to 12 September in Stuttgart) shows how to implement lightweight construction in an economical and resource-efficient way. The forum is conceived as a cross-industry and cross-material incubator of ideas, a place where all stakeholders can consider these new concepts. With a dedicated exhibition space and presentation forum, the LTF demonstrates how glass-fibre reinforced (GFRP) and carbon-fibre reinforced plastics (CFRP) play to their strengths in the materials mix with other substances – in automotive engineering, in aerospace and in construction.
Photo Claude Maack, GRADEL (jpg / 2,1 mb, Quelle GRADEL)
Photo satellite (jpg / 276 kb, Quelle: Pixabay)