Microrockets, the latest big thing in the booming satellite market | technology



Our lifestyle today would not be possible without the help of satellites. Many of the activities we do today on Earth depend heavily on these things many kilometers away from our heads: from controlling forest fires, deforestation, and sea surface temperature, to allowing connections to new mobile technologies, such as 5G, in hard-to-reach areas. to her.

A new generation of low-cost mini-satellites being launched into low orbits (between 500 and 1,000 kilometers from Earth) by companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX and UK-based OneWeb illustrates this growing trend.

Less is more

These satellites can be the size of a shoebox or even smaller, yet some are able to track the entire landmass of a planet in unprecedented detail. Over the next decade, more than 2,500 small satellites are expected to be launched annually, on average.

To get them into orbit as cheaply as possible, small satellites are often carried on large rockets as part of joint missions. The development of smaller rockets would allow for faster and more personalized access to space, which could open the market to more specialized service providers.

“Small satellites can travel in big shuttle trips, but that presents problems, such as the long time it takes to put them into orbit, where you have to reserve a space ahead of time and wait for the shuttle to go to the exact place where they want to put the satellites,” Xavier explains. Llairó, Commercial Director and Co-Founder of Pangea Aerospace in Barcelona, ​​Spain. “The companies that own these satellites need to access space in a dedicated way.”

The EU-funded RRTB project, led by Pangea, is trying to find more cost-effective ways to launch small rockets carrying satellites weighing up to 500 kilograms into space. The engine is expected to be ready for use before 2025.

The key is finding ways to reuse these tiny shuttles while minimizing the impact they experience when re-entering Earth’s atmosphere and allowing them to land safely. In addition, using shuttles more often will also allow us to be more respectful of the environment.

“Thanks to this reuse, the investment is lower, fewer means of production are used and the launch rate can be increased,” explains Llairó. As indicated by the RRTB project, which will end this month after three years of operation, at the moment in Europe there is still no proven method to achieve these goals.

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section One

The RRTB project focused on reusing the first part or first part of the missile at its base. This is the section responsible for generating most of the momentum immediately after launch, after which it separates and returns to Earth, often in the ocean. The other parts of the rocket, which are lighter in weight, continue to progress through space until their payload is put into orbit.

This first section is often damaged not only during its high-speed descent through the Earth’s atmosphere, but also from sea water. The difficulties and costs of recovering and returning it to the launch site can cause more problems than solutions. “When it falls into the water, it becomes very difficult to reuse,” says Llairó.

According to him, the solution is to find a way for the first part of the rocket to safely enter the Earth’s atmosphere and land at a docking station near the launch site or on a floating base. At the same time, the shuttle design must allow for a large enough payload for the operation to be economically viable.

To find ways to minimize damage to the microshuttles upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere and during descent, the RRTB team conducted wind tunnel tests on a small scale model.

The main goal of these precision bombers, according to Ellero, is to prevent the engine from having to be fired to re-enter the atmosphere. By reducing the weight of fuel required, this will allow the shuttles to carry a higher initial payload.

New nozzle

The team ran into difficulties in their research when the rocket featured a traditional bell-shaped nozzle around the engine, but found more promising results using a conical shape. This kind of nozzle airline It contributes to the distribution of heat so that the impact on the missile is less.

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“It allows it to enter the atmosphere more smoothly,” says Llairó. “This applies not only to small shuttles, but also to large ones. It was an unexpected find, because initially we were not looking for something like that.

Although the engines airline They also consume less fuel, explains Llairó, than conventional engines, whose benefits have so far been overshadowed by the complexities and costs of engineering them, which must include the difficulties of cooling them. However, technologies such as 3D printing, such as those used by Pangea, make it more viable.

technology airline It will change the way we’re going to get to space and how we’re going to get back to Earth,” says Llairó. “It’s a key factor in rocket reuse.” In the meantime, he says, the engine the team plans to use will use biomethane as propellant.

Efforts are also being made to make the various parts of the rockets more reusable, using, for example, aluminum-based materials for the fuel tanks.

“The goal is for most of the rockets to land safely and to reuse as many components as possible so that the operation is economically viable,” explains Llairó.

Preparing for launch

If, on the one hand, RRTB focuses on rocket reuse, then the UK-based aerospace company Orbex is preparing to launch a small, lightweight and environmentally friendly launcher.

As part of the EU-funded PRIME project, Orbex unveiled a prototype of its 19-meter rocket in May last year, which will become Europe’s first fully orbiting shuttle of small satellites. The missile was also designed with the goal of reusing recovered parts that did not burn up in the atmosphere. While Orbex hasn’t revealed anything about it yet, a company spokesperson said the method is “completely new.”

From Orbex, the Prime rocket is expected to launch this year for the first time, pending the fulfillment of some prerequisites, such as obtaining a launch authorization. “We have already sold several seats to commercial satellite service providers, but we have not yet announced the first launch date,” said Chris Larmore, CEO of Orbex. Larmor was also the coordinator of the PRIME project, which ran for three years, through June 2022.

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Greener rocket

The rocket will use clean propane-based biofuel, a by-product of biodiesel, a type of fuel obtained from sources such as used vegetable oil and cooking oil.

It would be combined with liquid oxygen, a “cooled propellant”; Any gas cooled to sub-zero temperatures and condensed into a highly flammable liquid. Through these measures, the rocket will reduce carbon emissions by up to 96% compared to shuttles of similar size powered by fossil fuels. “Orbex’s Prime rocket, powered by renewable biofuel, will be the greenest rocket ever,” says Larmor.

The fuel tanks are made of carbon fibre, allowing great resistance to be combined with light weight.

Orbex estimates that the Prime rocket weighs 30% less than conventional launchers, which contributes to greater efficiency and higher throughput, two vital aspects for small satellites. In addition, the missile is designed in such a way that it does not leave any kind of residue on the ground or in orbit. The company plans to launch up to 12 rockets a year from the Sutherland Space Center on the northern coast of Scotland. The Space Center is also expected to be carbon neutral, both in its construction and its operation.

Its relative proximity to Glasgow will help it take advantage of the region’s thriving space industry, with more satellites manufactured than anywhere else in Europe. Orbex believes this will provide the right context for players in the region to launch their own satellites into space.

“The satellite industry and its need for shuttles to put satellites into specific orbits has grown in recent years and will continue to do so exponentially,” notes Larmor. “This creates a very high demand for sustained, targeted launches of small satellites.”

The research described in this article was supported by European Union funds. The article was originally published in horizonEuropean Union journal of research and innovation.

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