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(15 December 2020 – NTS) NTS has announced that its laboratory in Los Angeles, California, has substantially expanded its Thermal Vacuum (TVAC) testing capabilities, further solidifying NTS’s leadership position in space qualification testing.

The NTS lab secured two additional TVAC Chambers and completed a series of upgrades to increase the lab’s overall capacity to provide customers with rapid scheduling options. The upgraded TVAC testing capability is critical for helping customers in the new Race to Space.

The TV-25 located in the Los Angeles, CA laboratory (courtesy: NTS)

Thermal vacuum testing is an essential aspect of qualification testing for space flight components, sub-assemblies, and mission-critical equipment. TVAC testing simulates upper atmosphere conditions of space including temperature and altitude by removing air and pressure while cycling very high and very low temperatures. In addition to testing sub-assemblies and mission-critical equipment, thermal vacuum chambers are also used for evaluating seals and rings, High Pressure-High Temperature (HPHT) programs, vacuum bakeout testing, and any program that requires a sterilized test environment. Each function is critical testing for identifying design issues before components are integrated into larger systems.

As the Race to Space intensifies, demand for thermal vacuum chambers is steadily increasing, prompting the NTS Los Angeles lab to enhance capabilities. The added TV-5 and TV-10 chambers brings its total number of thermal vacuum chambers to eight. These two additional chambers give NTS customers the ability to meet their demanding scheduling needs more easily.

Key features of the TV-5 are as follows:

  • Size: 25” Diameter, 28” Long
  • Integral Rough Pump and Cryogenic Pump, Vacuum Level 10-6 Torr
  • Two heating/cooling zones, each 18”X24” (+200°C/-180°C)
  • Sixty data channels (expandable)
  • TQCM compatible

The TV-10 offers the following:

  • Size: 5.5’ Diameter, 10’ Long
  • Integral Rough Pump, Tubromolecular Pump and Cryogenic Pump, Vacuum Level 10-6 Torr
  • 4’ X 8’ X 6 Layer Bake-Out Rack (up to +200°C)
  • Two control zones with up to eight 3’ X 4” heating/cooling panels (+200°C/-180°C)
  • Sixty data channels (expandable)
  • Numerous feed throughs (DB-25, Douglas 24255, others as required)

NTS leads in Space Testing with more TVAC test capabilities than any other third-party lab in North America. Most of the NTS thermal vacuum capabilities can be found at the NTS Los Angeles laboratory, which is home to a TV-25. NTS built the TV-25 (25 feet long by 15 feet deep) thermal vacuum in Los Angeles for client-spaceflight hardware. The facility contains one control room, two client rooms, a three-ton crane within a class 100,000 Clean Room, two gowning areas, and two uninterruptible power sources connected to an automatically engaged backup generator complete the highly specialized testing area.

Testing components for space applications requires extreme temperatures, higher pressures, lower vacuum levels, and more drastic environmental simulation. “The NTS Los Angeles Lab is a highly specialized lab that leverages a unique blend of expert engineering and customized facilities to meet these extreme testing challenges,” said Charles Diemen, General Manager at NTS, Los Angeles. “Our investment demonstrates this continued commitment to NTS customers to ensure the best test experience possible.”

NTS has qualified components for nearly every space launch platform including the Space Shuttle, Atlas, Delta IV, and Space Launch System (SLS). This rich history highlights the undisputed industry leadership of NTS in performing extreme, complex testing on assemblies utilizing robust, high output test systems. As a winner of the 2019 NASA Space Award—and with a multi-decade history in extreme environmental and dynamics testing—NTS is the world’s most trusted test lab for space testing.

About National Technical Systems

National Technical Systems, Inc. (NTS) is the leading provider of qualification testing, inspection, and certification services in North America, serving a broad range of industries, including the civil aviation, space, defense, nuclear, telecommunications, industrial, electronics, medical, and automotive end markets. Since 1961, NTS has built the broadest geographic presence in the United States, offering more than 70 distinct environmental simulation and materials testing categories, including climatic, structural, dynamics, fluid flow, EMI/EMC, lightning, product safety, acoustics, failure analysis, chemical, and other industry-specific tests.

Operating through a network of more than 27 technologically advanced testing laboratories, this geographically diverse footprint puts NTS facilities in close proximity to its more than 8,000 clients, allowing NTS to serve the nation’s most innovative companies with industry-leading accessibility and responsiveness. NTS is accredited by numerous national and international organizations and operates its inspection division under the Unitek brand, providing a wide range of supply chain management services. NTS’ certification division, which operates under the NQA brand, is one of the largest and most respected global ISO registrars, with active certifications in more than 75 countries.

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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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