Flight Tests Indicate Space Readiness

| Environmental Testing

NASA’s test facility will be used for performing vibration testing on a space plane and cargo module

Harsh environmental testing at specialist facilities are ensuring the latest space vehicles are ready for orbit

As more private companies worldwide are participating in multiple space programmes and the world becomes more reliant on satellite technology for communications, defence, monitoring and scientific research, there is a similar increase in the need for highle specialised testing facilities to ensure space-bound equipment is ready for the challenges ahead.

Milani Cubesat

Once mission that is currently going through several testing phases of the equipment that’s being used is the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Hera Mission, which will make use of “Milani”, a critical component of the mission and the ESA’s first deep-space nanosatellite as well as the first to orbit an asteroid.

As part of the world’s first test of asteroid deflection, following the successful impact of NASA’s DART spacecraft on asteroid Dimorphos, Hera will perform a detailed post-impact survey turning the experiment into a well-understood and repeatable planetary defence technique. To achieve its objectives, Hera will be using new technologies from autonomous navigation around an asteroid to low-gravity proximity operations.

Terran Orbital’s international arm, Tyvak, will support the European Space Agency’s Hera Mission and is responsible for Milani’s design, build, and mission operations.

Milani’s instruments are the ASPECT hyperspectral imager, the VISTA (Volatile In-Situ Thermogravimetre Analyser) dust detector and a Navigation Camera developed in collaboration with Politecnico di Milano for Image Processing algorithms. Finally, laser reflectors will enable unprecedented gravity field measurements of the asteroid coupled with Hera’s laser range finder.

The nano-satellite has now completed its test readiness review conducted by the ESA and the next main step is for the Milani Satellite to take part in an extended environmental test campaign at Laboratorio di Qualifica Spaziale of CIRA (Centro Italiano Ricerche Aerospaziali) in Capua, Italy. After completion of the test campaign, the Milani device will return to Tyvak for its final testing, verification and certification prior to being delivered to the ESA later in 2024.

At the ESA test facilities, Milani will be required in order to support the higher level Hera electromagnetic compatibility (EMC) test campaign and extensive System Validation Tests (SVTs), involving the mission ground segment as well.

Commenting on the successful completion of the test readiness review, Terran Orbital Co-Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Marc Bell comments, “At Terran Orbital, we are proud of Tyvak International’s successful achievement of the Test Readiness Review and of the trust placed in us by the ESA. We are looking forward to continuing to design, build, deliver and operate cutting-edge satellite technology for projects like the Hera Mission.”

According to Tyvak International’s VP of Programmes and Milani Programme Manager Margherita Cardi, the Hera programme is a challenging mission and the Test Readiness Review is a crucial milestone for the company.

“During the last few months, we’ve assembled the satellite and saw it taking shape day after day, which was a very exciting and emotional phase for me and the whole team,” she says.

The ESA Hera Project Manager, Ian Carnelly believes the integration of the Milani cubesat is an achievement that pays off the tens of thousands of hours of cutting edge engineering efforts. “We can’t wait for the environmental test campaign to be completed and start testing with the Hera spacecraft. One step closer to achieving the goals,” he concludes.

Space Plane Arrives at NASA Test Facility

While satellites of many different types and sizes are frequent visitors to the specialist testing facilities that are set up for putting such equipment through the rigours of launch and the hostile environment of space, there is also the requirement to test equipment at much higher levels of assembly.

One such vehicle is the “Dream Chaser” space plane from Sierra Space, a full sized spaceship that has a requirement for test facilities that are less readily available than those used to test smaller satellites.

In December last year, Sierra Space delivered the first Dream Chaser space plane, “Tenacity”, to NASA’s Neil Armstrong Test Facility in Sandusky, Ohio, where it is scheduled to enter its final testing phase ahead of the first flight, which is due to take place at some point in 2024. The testing campaign will confirm the spacecraft’s resilience to the challenges of launch and the demanding conditions of space as it prepares for its inaugural mission to the International Space Station under a multi-mission NASA contract.

The new space plane will join the matching cargo module, “Shooting Star”, which had already arrived at the NASA test facility in the previouse month.

The two vehicles will be stacked together in a launch configuration before they undergo rigorous environmental testing starting in the Mechanical Vibration Facility.

This test will subject them to the extreme conditions of launch vibrations on the world’s most powerful spacecraft shaker table, which is installed at the facility.

In order to ensure the utmost reliability of the combined technologies of Dream Chaser and the Shooting Star cargo module, the two will go through the vibration testing phase in tandem.

Based on this commitment to reliability as well as re-usability and the convenience of using existing commercial runway facilities for take off and landing, Dream Chaser was selected by NASA for future cargo delivery, return and disposal service for the International Space Station.

The space plane has a highly customizable design, which makes it ideal for a range of applications, providing fast turnaround times to support various low earth orbit (LEO) needs. Sierra Space says the fleet will provide greater efficiencies with high reusability and mark the beginning of a new era of space commercialisation. The multi-mission spaceplane fleet is designed to transport crew and cargo to Low Earth Orbit and can be customised for both domestic and international users for global operations.

The Neil Armstrong Test Facility is part of NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and is home to some of the world’s largest and most capable space simulation test facilities, where ground tests are conducted for the US and international space and aeronautics communities.

Jonathan Newell
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