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Advanced composite sandwich structures for tomorrow's satellites

News International-French

16 Dec 2016

SMS (Sandwich Material and Structure) is one of the space projects chosen for the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 (H2020) program.

Advanced composite sandwich structures for tomorrow's satellites

The international satellite market is fiercely competitive and the choice of the materials used on components or subassemblies more critical than ever. Composite sandwich structures offer good tradeoffs between rigidity, stability and weight. Structures dedicated for Earth observation and science satellites are getting larger these days, which makes it harder to achieve a balance between stability/rigidity/weight.That, in short, is what led to a study dubbed SMS (Sandwich Material and Structure), with Thales Alenia Space as prime contractor. SMS is one of the space projects chosen for the European Commission’s Horizon 2020 (H2020) program.

SMS at a glance
In this case, SMS is not a text message, but an unprecedented study that may well change the ground rules in the scientific and Earth observation satellite markets.

The aim of this study is to develop cutting-edge technologies that could be used to make lighter and stronger composite sandwich structures offering the same stability as with other materials – and all at an industrial scale. The plan is to use carbon-fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP) to form the honeycomb core of the sandwich. The composite panel “skins” could also be made of composites, or perhaps other materials, depending on the actual application. Along with these skins and the honeycomb core, other new technologies will be developed (calling on new bonding techniques in particular) to save weight and increase stability. One of the innovative solutions already chosen is a new bonding technique, using new materials and processes, that is designed  to limit the influence of the adhesive between the core and the outer composite panels.

The main advantage of the SMS project is that it would result in single-piece structures providing a host of benefits for satellite manufacturers. First, one-piece (integral) composite sandwich structures are more stable, meaning they stand up better to temperature fluctuations. In other words, they are less subject to the stress of expansion. The use of composite materials also means that they are lighter than conventional single-piece structures. Furthermore, the composite honeycomb core strengthens the overall sandwich structure more efficiently, giving the manufacturer greater leeway in terms of design and mechanical properties. Lighter, more stable and more flexible, composite structures will significantly improve the competitiveness of tomorrow’s satellites, thus inspiring an unprecedented technological advance for European observation systems.

In addition to these new production techniques, the project takes into account various logistics aspects, including procurement in Europe. The study kicked off in January 2016 and will finish at the end of 2017, leading to the design of a 1/6 scale prototype. This model will incorporate the technologies chosen, especially the composite honeycomb core and an appropriate assembly method. The prototype will subsequently undergo various demonstration tests, designed to prove its viability.

The SMS project is being coordinated by Thales Alenia Space at the head of a European consortium comprising five partners: North Thin Ply Technology SARL (Switzerland), designer of composite materials and honeycomb structures, Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Materia Nova (Belgium) and the Polytechnic School of Turin (Politecnico di Torino), suppliers of various assembly solutions. North Thin Ply Technology ZOO of Poland is responsible for the engineering and production of composite materials. As the project specifier, Thales Alenia Space will also be the end-user, leading to the production of high-performance sandwich structures for Earth observation applications.

Thales Alenia Space and the Horizon 2020 program
Thales Alenia Space is a leading contributor to the Space section of the Horizon 2020 (H2020) program, designed to foster innovation and boost the competitiveness of this sector in Europe. The company plays a major role in a number of H2020 projects, as partner or coordinator. After spotlighting the GoToFly, PAMPA, ONION and SMS projects, we will be keeping you up to date in the coming weeks on other H2020 projects led by Thales Alenia Space.