Spain enters the space race with intensive testing programme for satellite launch vehicle
Work is progressing well in Spain on the testing and development of a European launch vehicle for delivering mini- and micro-satellites into space from the CSG (Guiana Space Centre) facilities in Kourou (French Guiana) in 2024, where the launch pad for its orbital rocket, MIURA 5 should be located.
PLD Space, the company behind the project, started from scratch in 2011 and has now reached a crucial stage in its mission to achieve its goals. To understand more about its achievements so far and plans for the future, we spoke to Raúl Verdú, the Chief Business Development Officer and Co-founder of PLD Space.
A Tale of Two Rockets
The route to achieving commercial space flight involves two stages of development with the MIURA 1 launch vehicle, which is a technology demonstrator, and MIURA 5, which will carry payloads from CSG.
As Verdú explains, these aren’t serial development activities with much of the work on both vehicles happening in parallel. There are differences between the two but he says that 80% of the technology of MIURA 5 will be tested on MIURA 1.
“MIURA 5 is a two-stage rocket whereas MIURA 1 is single stage. The main difference is size as MIURA 5 is 56m tall as opposed to just 12m for MIURA 1. Because of this, systems integration is more difficult on the smaller rocket and so some of the testing will be easier on MIURA 5,” he says.
Currently, MIURA 1 has successfully completed all of its qualification tests and is ready for flight testing to demonstrate its capabilities. Testing, testing and more testing has been the key to reaching this crucial stage, according to Verdú.
MIURA 1 Testing
The rocket has now undergone all the tests at the PLD Space technical facilities in Teruel and is ready for its first launch, which will take place at El Arenosillo (Huelva, Spain).
Verdú explains that this will be the first European launch vehicle to be tested at a system level and it will be necessary to undergo full test, including launch management.
“Test slots are available in 3-day windows and the first one available is in March. The launch vehicle is currently at our HQ ready to move to the launch base,” he says.
Leading up to this, the qualification campaign consisted of a series of tests in order to ensure that all of the rocket’s subsystems are working properly. Finally, a complete combined test was performed to verify that the vehicle is ready for flight.
Specifically, the testing consisted of several wet tests and three hot tests. The last one, known as full mission test, was the key to the future of the vehicle because it simulates all the conditions of a real launch, only without actually flying.
This 110-second test corresponds to the time of the ignition in an actual launch. Its main purpose is to check the correct operation of all subsystems during a simulated flight. With the information obtained in the different tests, the PLD Space team was able to verify that each part of the rocket is working as planned or, if not, to take advantage of this data to optimise all the parameters of the first flight unit.
The MIURA 1 qualification campaign has been successful because no critical subsystem has failed. PLD Space collected a list of small modifications that required programmatic management, such as changing a component or updating some design that needed to be improved, but nothing critical. It sees the testing as crucial to the development process because with each test, the company manages to evolve and improve the flight rocket.
When asked about the environmental testing programme that the launch vehicle was subjected to, Verdú explained that the company uses a mixture of resources based on specialist skills and facilities.
“We test of everything including components and sub-systems. Some of the testing is done in-house and others are outsourced to specialist laboratories. These include vacuum, vibration and climatic testing,” he says.
The company is fortunate that all the facilities it uses, including its test centre, launch facility and headquarters are all within 3 hours of each other.
“We perform all the testing that involves our core expertise and technology In-house. This includes engine testing and high pressure tank testing. There is a lot of test capability at our headquarters including X-Ray inspection, dimensional test systems etc. This is necessary because of the importance of qualification in the industry,” he explains
Whilst the testing programme was being carried out on MIURA 1, the engineering team at PLD Space was already working on the final design of the MIURA 4 orbital vehicle, taking advantage of the information gathered in the MIURA 1 test campaign.
As part of the preparations, a team from PLD Space travelled to the CSG in Kourou, where they were able to see first-hand the areas that CNES (Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales) will make available to European small launcher operators. The European Space Port operator has already shortlisted PLD Space to be one of the seven European companies to operate at the site.
CSG director, Marie-Anne Clair met Verdú during the visit and commented on the willingness of the space port to support new European actors in their access to space.
Currently used for Ariane and Vega launchers, the CSG can accommodate new European launch vehicles as an additional way to increase Europe’s competitiveness and create independence for access to space.
The company’s plan is centred on launching two MIURA 5 flight missions from French Guiana in 2024, progressively increasing this launch rate to between 10 and 12 launches per year. The firm is currently developing the design and construction activities for the launch infrastructure in Kourou, as well as the management of operational needs.
To meet this strategic milestone, PLD Space plans to expand its technical facilities in Teruel and its manufacturing plant in Elche (Spain). It will also grow its team, which currently consists of more than 110 professionals and expects to increase to 200 people in the coming year.
Verdú believes the CSG is the perfect choice for the programme based on its position, infrastructure, launch characteristics and the decades of experience the space port already has.
PLD Space has embarked on a number of initiatives relating to the end-to-end lifecyle of the rocket with a view to reducing the environmental impact of space travel. These initiatives include a recent partnership the company has entered into with Repsol on the use of sustainable sources of kerosene.
The project includes feasibility studies to replace current fuels with others produced with sustainable raw materials, as well as the design of new renewable fuels, which will be tailor-made in the Repsol Technology Lab for the rocket propellants manufactured by PLD Space, specifically for the MIURA recoverable micro-launchers. In this way, both companies are making progress towards the European Union’s goal of climate neutrality by 2050.
Repsol will formulate the new fuels from renewable or recycled raw materials, specifically, from advanced biofuels made from waste as raw material or using synthetic fuels that are produced from renewable hydrogen and CO2 removed from the atmosphere. In this way, a reduction of the carbon footprint of up to 90% or even negative is achieved.
Verdú explains, “We were the first company in Europe to publicly commit to the recovery of its micro-launchers as proof of its commitment to the environment. We want to continue researching all the alternatives that allow us to reduce our carbon footprint, including in propulsion”.