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11th July 2019, Stuttgart

Opportunities in space travel

Lightweight construction helps to increase the payload of a rocket, making it possible to take more satellites into space with each launch. © Composites Europe

Lightweight construction helps to increase the payload of a rocket, making it possible to take more satellites into space with each launch. © Composites Europe

Ahead of this year’s Composites Europe, which takes place from 10-12 September in Stuttgart, Germany, exhibition organiser ReedExpo interviewed Claude Maack, managing director of the Luxembourg-based aerospace supplier Gradel. His company will also present at the Lightweight Technologies Forum which takes place alongside Composites Europe 2019.

Mr Maack, ultra-lightweight construction has always been a key technology in aerospace. What’s the driver that’s pushing lightweight construction even further ahead right now?

Claude Maack: Lightweight construction will always be a trend in space travel because weight costs a lot of money here – you’ll currently pay about $7,000 for each kilogramme of weight you transport into space. Lightweight construction helps to increase the payload of a rocket, making it possible to take more satellites into space with each launch. In addition, it lets you save fuel and thus costs. But lightweight construction in the aerospace industry has a long way to go.

Why? What’s slowing down the journey towards lighter rockets and satellites?

CM: Space travel is dominated by risk minimisation. That means long series’ of simulations and tests. The biggest challenge is convincing customers, such as satellite operators, for example, to deploy a new technology. Even if we can show them all the necessary qualifications, there is, after all, no practical experience yet. So we have to persuade customers that lightweight construction technologies are safe and add so much value that the investments will be worthwhile. What’s in demand is lightweight construction at affordable prices.

Gradel products are deployed in many space programmes. In what areas do you see the biggest potential for lightweight construction?

CM: I see a big market in medium-sized and smaller satellites as well as with the nanosatellites, which as a group are supposed to cover telecommunications and internet connections on earth in future. The need for such satellites will grow.

What special requirements are there for aerospace materials?

CM: With a satellite, all components are exposed to extreme conditions. Right from the launch of the rocket, they have to withstand enormous acceleration forces. The burden continues in space – while the mechanical load is low here, all materials must withstand radiation exposure, and for an average service life of 15 years at that. Then there are the high temperature differences from minus 185 to plus 200 degrees Celsius – alternating every couple of hours from one extreme to the other. The absolute vacuum in space also puts a big strain on the materials because degassing of the materials must be prevented at all cost.

What technologies do you see in the lead when it comes to lighter components?

CM: Definitely fibre composites. Regarding the technology, we have opted for a three-dimensional winding technology.The xFK in 3D is a development from our partner AMC in which carbon-fibre-reinforced plastics are wound three-dimensionally and geometrically free. There’s currently no technology that makes building easier.

Why did you choose this exact technology?

CM: In space travel, you need small quantities, often even just prototypes. The xFK in 3D winding process is a competitive, extremely reliable alternative to 3D printing. Besides being low in weight, components must also be highly rigid – both factors impact the overall concept of a satellite. Our xFK components are currently being qualified, and we’re involving the European Space Agency ESA in this process. Tests with thermal load cycles will follow next. If they’re successful, we’ll build the first structures.

What’s the significance of digitalisation in development?

CM: We work in a closed digital process chain. That way we can show customers in advance what the finished component can do, simulate deployment and prove that we’ve mastered the technology.

Won’t those many satellites turn into a problem at some point when they turn into space junk after their useable service life?

CM: Here, too, lightweight construction can be a solution – when decommissioned satellites are brought down in a controlled crash, objects with a low mass can burn up completely upon re-entry.

How do you think the market for aerospace products will develop in the medium term?

CM: I think the market will come under great cost pressure. Companies such a SpaceX are wreaking havoc with existing structures. Plus, the aerospace industry is moving faster and faster. Satellites and their possible technical uses must be more flexible these days. It used to be the case that a satellite would have the same function for 15 years. Today, it must be able to take on new tasks after just six months. That means the OEMs have to reposition themselves as well. However, we at Gradel feel we’re well positioned in order to respond quickly to the new requirements.

You’re currently conducting a study together with AMC about the future of lightweight construction in space travel, which you will present at the Lightweight Technologies Forum in Stuttgart in September. What’s the purpose of the study?

CM: The aerospace market will grow. We’re interested in determining the potential of integrative, systemic lightweight construction and the materials that are right for it. To that end, we want to create an overview of the current state of the market and the technologies.

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