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(6 January 2021 – SEAKR) SEAKR Engineering (SEAKR) has announced it realized on-orbit technology demonstration of Pit Boss supercomputing processing hardware in 9 months as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Blackjack Program.

Pit Boss is an autonomous, collaborative, distributed space-based enterprise designed to self-task, process, and distribute tactically relevant information to manned and unmanned subscribers.

(courtesy: SEAKR)

As Pit Boss prime, SEAKR supports the Blackjack program with two risk reduction demonstration flights as Low Earth Orbit (LEO) rideshares. The first demonstration, Mandrake I, a cubesat, validates key Pit Boss hardware and chip level technologies prior to full production. The experimental orbital platform includes a digital twin and provides ‘real-time’ efficacy feedback on LEO radiation mitigations and processor performance. The single satellite system launch supports early evaluation and characterization for risk reduction in technology development. The second demonstration, Mandrake II, aims to advance laser communications between satellites and to ground or airborne assets with Blackjack constellation laser terminals.

DARPA’s Blackjack program focuses on integrating commercial satellite technologies into a constellation of affordable, small, secure, and resilient military satellites. Mandrake efforts combine mission development and management services, integration coordination, as well as mission operations, data reduction and processor prototype development. The Mandrake program supports the Blackjack program’s mission by aiming to reduce risk and validating key technologies and capabilities to expand operational fidelity.

SEAKR’s processing developments for DARPA’s blackjack program leverages four generations of architectural capability supporting the full spectrum of payload processing performance requirements, with a high level of on-orbit reconfigurable processing capability. Pulling from its established heritage capabilities, strength in Radio Frequency (RF) communications, along with the continuous product and architectural advancement, SEAKR continues to define leading edge, state-of-practice processing systems in partnership with government, civil, and commercial entities. SEAKR’s previous study and prototype advancements have successfully contributed to our customer’s ability to solve complex challenges imperative in advancing capability to meet today’s most daunting mission objectives. Key technologies being deployed and leveraged include: Analog-to-Digital Converter (ADC) and Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) technologies, Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) based processing technologies, and Application-Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) based processing technologies.

About SEAKR Engineering

SEAKR Engineering is the leading-edge provider of advanced electronics for space applications. We design and manufacture processors, command and data handling systems, advanced payloads, and manned space hardware. Founded in 1982 to revolutionize spacecraft memory systems, today SEAKR continues forward innovation with state-of-the-art space communications processors capable of channelization and beamforming.

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Iodine thruster could slow space junk accumulation

Iodine thruster could slow space junk accumulation

(22 January 2021 – ESA) For the first time ever, a telecommunications satellite has used an iodine propellant to change its orbit around Earth.

The small but potentially disruptive innovation could help to clear the skies of space junk, by enabling tiny satellites to self-destruct cheaply and easily at the end of their missions, by steering themselves into the atmosphere where they would burn up.

Iodine thruster used to change the orbit of a small satellite for the first time ever (courtesy: ThrustMe)

The technology could also be used to boost the mission lifetime of small CubeSats that monitor agricultural crops on Earth or entire mega-constellations of nanosats that provide global internet access, by raising their orbits when they begin to drift towards the planet.

The technology was developed by ThrustMe, a spin-off company from the École Polytechnique and the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), and supported by ESA through its programme of Advanced Research in Telecommunications Systems (ARTES).

It uses a novel propellant – iodine – in an electric thruster that controls the satellite’s height above Earth. Iodine is less expensive and uses simpler technologies than traditional propellants.

Unlike many traditional propellants, iodine is non-toxic and it is solid at room temperature and pressure. This makes it easier and cheaper to handle on Earth.

When heated, it turns to gas without going through a liquid phase, which makes it ideal for a simple propulsion system. It is also denser than traditional propellants, so it occupies smaller volumes onboard the satellite.

ThrustMe launched its iodine thruster on a commercial research nanosat called SpaceTy Beihangkongshi-1 that went into space in November 2020. It was test fired earlier this month before being used to change the orbit of the satellite.

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Skynet 6A successfully passes Preliminary Design Review

Skynet 6A successfully passes Preliminary Design Review

(14 Janaury 2021 – Airbus) Airbus has successfully completed the first key phase of the Skynet 6A project with the achievement of the Preliminary Design Review (PDR).

The project now has permission to move into the next phase leading to the Critical Design Review (CDR).

Airbus was awarded the Skynet 6A contract in July 2020 and teams across its sites in Stevenage, Portsmouth and Hawthorn have been working on the programme to achieve this key milestone. Meetings with the UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) were held virtually enabling the review board to take place in October and the PDR being achieved in November.

Skynet 6A (courtesy: Airbus)

Richard Franklin, Managing Director of Airbus Defence and Space UK said: “This is excellent news and demonstrates our joint commitment to work in partnership to achieve the programme schedule. The progress we are making in building the UK MOD’s next generation military satellite and getting to this stage, despite current restrictions, really highlights the flexible and strong working relationship we have built with the Defence Digital team. Skynet 6A, to be built entirely in the UK, will significantly enhance the UK’s milsatcoms capability, building on the heritage of the four Skynet 5 satellites which were also built by Airbus, and which are all still operating perfectly in orbit.”

Teams from across the space and ground segments in Airbus worked closely with their MOD counterparts to keep the programme on track.

Skynet 6A will extend and enhance the Skynet fleet. The contract signed with the UK MOD in July 2020 involves the development, manufacture, cyber protection, assembly, integration, test and launch, of a military communications satellite, Skynet 6A, planned for launch in 2025. The contract also covers technology development programmes, new secure telemetry, tracking and command systems, launch, in-orbit testing and ground segment updates to the current Skynet 5 system. The value of the contract is more than £500 million.

The Skynet 5 programme, provided by Airbus as a full service outsource contract, has provided the UK MOD with a suite of highly robust, reliable and secure military communications services, supporting global operations since 2003. Airbus has been involved in all Skynet phases since 1974 and this phase builds on a strong UK commitment to space manufacturing in the UK. The programme commenced by using the legacy Skynet 4 satellites and then augmenting them with a fully refurbished ground network before launching the Skynet 5A, 5B, 5C and 5D satellites between 2007 and 2012.

The Skynet 5 programme has reduced or removed many of the technical and service risks for the MOD, whilst ensuring unrivalled secure satcoms and innovation to UK forces. Through the many years of delivering an exceptionally reliable Skynet service the Airbus teams have managed to significantly extend the lifespan of the Skynet satellites many years beyond their design life, offering significant additional value for money and capability to the UK.

The Skynet 6A satellite is based on Airbus’ Eurostar Neo telecommunications satellite platform. It will utilise more of the radio frequency spectrum available for satellite communications and the latest digital processing to provide both more capacity and greater versatility than Skynet 5 satellites. The satellite will feature electric orbit raising propulsion as well as electric station keeping systems for maximum cost effectiveness. Complete satellite integration will take place at Airbus facilities in the UK followed by testing using RAL Space testing facilities at Harwell in Oxfordshire supporting the UK Space Agency initiative for sovereign UK end-to-end satellite production and support.

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Tests prove carbon-fibre fuel tank for Phoebus upper stage

Tests prove carbon fibre fuel tank for Phoebus upper stage

(20 January 2021 – ESA) Recent tests show that lightweight carbon-fibre reinforced plastic is strong enough to replace metal used in upper-stage rocket structures.

This is an important milestone in Europe for the development of a prototype of a highly-optimised ‘black’ upper stage, Phoebus, a joint initiative by MT Aerospace and ArianeGroup, funded by ESA.

The key goal of the Phoebus project is to increase launch vehicle payload performance by over two tonnes by reducing the mass of the upper stage through new design and lighter materials. At the same time, Phoebus shall also reduce production costs.

Test of carbon-composite oxidiser tank (courtesy: MT Aerospace)

Carbon-fibre reinforced plastic (CFRP) materials, or carbon composites, allow new architectures and combinations of functions otherwise not possible using metallic materials. CFRP is lightweight and dark in appearance and will be used for the cryogenic propellant tanks as well as primary and secondary structures of Phoebus, hence the name ‘black’ upper stage.

Furthermore, their manufacturing process allows for an integrated layout that results in fewer parts compared to a comparable metallic configuration, thereby reducing production and assembly costs.

“The technology challenges include developing the machine capability that allows high-precision placement of the carbon composite materials and identification of the optimal subsequent curing steps to set the composite. The carbon fibre must withstand the extremely low temperatures of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants whilst ensuring no leaks,” explained Kate Underhill, ESA propulsion engineer.

“CFRP material can be chemically very reactive with oxygen, therefore the proper selection of an appropriate material system of fibres and resin is an especially demanding task. Mastering this compatibility is a crucial milestone, which has now been achieved within the Phoebus project.”

During experiments by MT Aerospace on a testing site managed by Rheinmetall in Unterlüß, Germany, a subscale CFRP tank was tested with liquid oxygen. During these tests, the tank was filled and drained multiple times, pressurised beyond operational limits and shock tested to ensure no ignition event of the oxygen tank.

The test tank was equipped with a variety of sensors to monitor pressure, temperature, strain or a possible leakage. The analysis of the results and the overall good structural integrity of the liquid oxygen tank prove the technology.

Test of carbon-composite oxidiser tank (courtesy: MT Aerospace)

This achievement clears the way for further activities and indicates that the Phoebus demonstrator is on track. The next steps are the application of the CFRP material to a leak-tight liquid hydrogen tank design, and finally, a proper upscaling to and ground testing of the near full-scale Phoebus upper stage structural demonstrator in 2023.

These activities are being carried out within the Future Launchers Preparatory Programme of ESA’s Directorate of Space Transportation.

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