Today’s market for small satellites is expanding. However, these nano-satellites and micro-satellites have to share a ride on a large rocket that is dedicated to a primary customer. This often causes a conflict with respect to the timeline and the target orbit. Now that smaller satellites become technologically more advanced and mature, a call for dedicated but ‘affordable’ launches is expedient for small satellite operators. Launch costs reduction is essential, e.g. through reuse, low cost components, volume production, optimised manufacturing.
Fourteen European companies and institutes are joining forces in a European Union (EU) Horizon 2020 project called “SMall Innovative Launcher for Europe” (SMILE). The project aims at designing a launcher for satellites up to 50 kg and a European-based launch facility at Andøya, as well as demonstrating critical technologies on propulsion, avionics, and manufacturing of cost-effective solutions.
- NLR – Netherlands Aerospace Centre
- German Aerospace Centre (DLR)
- Nammo Raufoss AS
- Andøya Space Centre (ASC)
- National Institute for Aerospace Research – INCAS
- Airborne Composites Automation
- Heron Engineering
- ISIS – Innovative Solutions In Space
- 3D Systems
- PLD Space
The launcher will provide a proper launch capability for a combination of several smaller satellites as well as a single micro-satellite, thus targeting not only the market for education and in-orbit demonstration, but also allowing commercial, scientific, and governmental missions.
The SMILE concept targets a European, ITAR-free, cost effective, commercially exploitable launch service. The project chooses the well-proven path of a vertical orbital launcher for small satellites, whilst developing technology that can also be applied to any of the above-mentioned initiatives.
The development of critical advanced European technology (including materials, structures, engines, and avionics) with affordability in mind is an essential step to achieve this goal and should be combined with the application of series production at subsystem level, possible reuse of the first stage, and integrated low-cost avionics.
The SMILE project aims at ensuring Europe’s independent access to space for small satellites. This is achieved by the combined research into a new innovative European launcher for an emerging market of small satellites up to 50 kg using a multidisciplinary design and optimisation approach strengthened by the demonstration of critical technologies for cost-effective solutions and complemented with the design of a Europe-based ground facility at Andøya (Norway).
A European launcher is designed that uses advances in technology to achieve cost reduction, including design for series production, reusability, and the use of COTS components. Critical technologies enabling affordable and independent access to space will be developed in this project. To be able to meet the target price, the design will be based on existing advanced technologies from the offset, and drive the development of required new technologies.
The objectives of the SMILE project are:
- To design a concept for an innovative, cost-effective European launcher for small satellites.
- To design a Europe-based ground facility for small launchers based on the evolution of the existent sounding rocket launch site at Andøya Space Center.
- To increase the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of critical technologies for low-cost European launchers.
- To develop prototypes of components, demonstrating this critical technology.
- To create a roadmap defining the development plan for the small satellites launcher system from a technical, operational and economical perspective
The concept of a cost-effective launcher requires a focus on reducing costs, which calls for more efficiency, such as a reduction of the structural mass fraction, and thus for advances in lightweight materials as well as component miniaturisation and integration.
Cost reduction is difficult, because the system is complex, production is time-consuming and heavily depending on skilled workmanship. However, advances technology and design can provide a means for acceptable launch costs.
- Reuse of one or more stages.
This saves recurring material and production cost of complex subsystems (but increases development and operational cost). Nevertheless, the option to reuse the first stage will be examined as a means of cost reduction, for instance incorporating reusable engine technology together with auto-navigating parachutes (such as ACRIDS).
- Apply commercial industry-grade components.
The use of such components will not only reduce cost directly (as the unit price is lower), but also indirectly: commercial technology is more advanced, i.e. more performance at lower mass and power consumption, which leads to weight savings. Component screening is important for gaining confidence in the selected components (reliability).
- Design for volume production.
Producing systems in large quantities significantly reduces the cost per piece. The number of launches dedicated to small satellite is expected to be quite high relative to traditional launches. However, even with increasing numbers of launches, it cannot be expected that a launcher as a whole can be produced in large quantities. Instead, we use common building blocks that either are the same or use the same component, e.g. unitary engines.
- Use hybrid
The SMILE project will offer the possibility to compare that new technology with the established liquid engine technology, make a trade-off between them and, thanks to the expertise of Nammo for the hybrid and DLR for the liquid, propose a launcher architecture perfectly tailored to the task of launching small satellite, at low cost and at high frequency.
- Automatic manufacturing of low-weight composites.
If composites are to be used, new technologies are needed to keep down the cost. When selecting these technologies, it is important to use a holistic approach, where design concept, material selection, and processing are considered an integrated whole. Only when these three parts come together is it possible to achieve the maximum performance and economic benefits needed to make this program a success.
- Reduction of associated costs
Only part of the total launch costs is related to the producing the rocket. For a new launcher, the ground facility and the logistics can be optimised for cost, by looking concurrently at transport, storage, and legislation. A minimum amount of ‘overhead’ is necessary though, such as the required paperwork, permits, launch site operations, safety and security as well as the required technical and programmatic meetings between the customer(s) and the launch provider.
Within the framework of SMILE, several advances in technology for all aspects of a launch are taken into account.
- Liquid propulsion
Liquid propulsion offers reliability, high performance, throttling capability and easy re-ignition. LOX and kerosene propellants are considered, being low-cost, worldwide available, green, and storable. Ceramic materials ensure high oxidation resistance combined with damage tolerance and insensitivity against thermo-shocks and thermal cycling. Combined with transpiration cooling, this will improve the lifetime, leading to reusable liquid engines.
- Hybrid propulsion
Hybrid propulsion combines advantages of solid engines (simplicity) and liquid (inherent safety, throttling, and re-ignition capabilities). The chosen combination of propellant (H2O2 and HTPB) ensures good performances and limited cost, being safe (handling and operation), green and industrially available. Clustering standardized motors is also considered key to limit the cost (increased volume production and reliability).
- Low-cost turbopumps
Small and simple stages can use a pressurised system to feed the liquid propellants to the combustion chamber. However, in the cases where the tanks are large or the combustion pressure is high, turbopumps are needed. WEPA-Technologies is developing turbopumps for launchers, both cryogenic (e.g. LOX/ethanol, LOX/methane, and LOX/kerosene) and non-cryogenic (H2O2).
- Composite manufacturing
Traditional state-of-the-art composite technologies typically result in a more expensive structure than those based the current metal designs. Thus, new technologies are needed for manufacturing composite structures at acceptable cost. One of the key elements is the use of automated manufacturing methods. The intention is to use standard industrial robots as a manufacturing platform, and to develop dedicated end-effectors suited to specific processes and product families.
- Printing technology
The technology of Direct Metal Printing (DMP) is rapidly finding acceptance for dental, medical, and industrial applications. Due to possible performance gains in terms of weight reduction, maintenance or flow optimization or energy efficiency, the technology is of great interest for the space industry. Selective Laser Melting (SLM) is a technology that yields an attractive balance between material integrity, feature resolution, surface quality, and productivity. Major groups of materials that are commonly processed are stainless steel alloys, titanium alloys, Nickel-based super alloys, aluminium alloys, and specialty materials like heavy metals.
- Low-cost avionics
The use of space-qualified avionics components typically leads to expensive subsystems. Experience with CubeSats brought the conclusion that selected Commercial-Off-The-Shelf equipment can survive the launch and work in the space environment. The avionics developments focus on the inertial measurement unit, power distribution system, and on-board computer.
- Flexible payload adapter
To eject satellites into their final orbit, a deployment system is required. The small satellite market is currently dominated by CubeSats, launched inside a container or CubeSat deployment system. The project envisages a lightweight system for the range of 25 – 50 kg satellites as well as a slimmed-down version of a CubeSat dispenser.
- Optimised ground operations
Nowadays, launcher ground operations are still time-consuming and expensive. The objective in SMILE is to design a conceptual ground facility with significant cost reduction of ground/launch processing and operations without compromising the mission.