Record-breaking space launches in stressful 2020

Carrier Rocket Launch In The Clouds. 3D Scene.

Soon, 2020 will be over and be remembered as a very exciting year for space exploration with many exciting missions and space launches by space agencies and the commercial space industry.

It is a record year with over 1000 satellites sent to orbit, more than in any previous year. Not all of them of course have a scientific mission. Several hundred are telecommunication satellites enabling satellite  internet programs such as Starlink from SpaceX.

Some very exciting launch moments were for sure in my opinion:

  • SpaceX becoming the first private company to successfully launch NASA astronauts and safely transport them to the International Space Station
  • Three missions launched toward the Red Planet (Mars): Hope Mars mission (United Arab Emirates), Tianwen-1 (China) and Mars rover Perseverance (US)
  • Chang’e 5. first lunar sample return mission from China.  The first time this has been done for more than 4 decades

In order to carry out the assigned mission successfully the spacecrafts are involved in comprehensive test campaigns that included development, qualification, and proto-flight test programs. Testing is performed to verify and ensure the payloads can survive the rigors they will be exposed to during the rocket ride to space.

Prior to space launches, the test program includes vibration and acoustic noise testing to simulate the launch environment, high level shock and pyro-shock to simulate stages separations, pyro-bolts and ultimately release in space. All these tests are necessary to ensure perfect operation of all sensitive instruments on the payloads when they are put in orbit or when they land on Mars or the Moon.

An actual sine qualification test on the BepiColombo spacecraft (an ESA and JAXA joint scientific mission to explore Mercury)  at ESA’s ESTEC test facility using Simcenter SCADAS hardware and Simcenter Testlab software is shown in video below:

To give you an idea, the Perseverance has about 23 cameras for both engineering and scientific purposes and many electronic sub-systems such as the UHF radio and the radar altimeter. Failure of any of them could have major implications for the mission. Therefore, testing is crucial at component, assembly, sub-system, and system levels to guarantee a successful mission.

As satellites and space probes are often one-of-a-kind systems, the final flying payload is also the prototype. Hence, the required and extensive environmental testing is a risky task. Although a satellite is structurally designed to withstand the loads of the launch it is important that a qualification test (whether it is a pyro-shock, vibration or acoustic test) does not over-test the satellite above the specifications.

If an over-test is done, it might well be that instruments or equipment do not survive the second “real-life” launch. Hence, the need to have these qualification test fully under control and reduce the risk for over-testing.

Simcenter testing solutions allow to perform such vibration, acoustic and shock qualification tests in full confidence. It offers safe, traceable, efficient and smart control capabilities to ensure protection of the hardware.

Vibration qualification test at ESA’s ESTEC facility using Simcenter (Courtesy ESA-ESTEC)

In addition to mechanical qualification testing, modal survey and micro-vibration testing are also a concern for space missions. Modal surveys help validate satellite or launcher finite element (FE) models for more accurate analysis. Micro-vibrations (caused by reaction wheels, cryocoolers etc.) can affect the functioning of extremely sensitive equipment such as optical devices or laser instruments.

Read all about it in following comprehensive white paper:  “Perform safe and efficient space qualification testing”.  It  provides a nice overview and discussion of different space testing technologies, from mechanical qualification tests to modal survey and micro-vibration testing. It also addresses how digital twins can support in de-risking and optimizing spacecraft testing before space launches.