In space, every gramme counts. There are no second chances, and the nearest toolkit is on Earth. When it comes to deployable spacecraft structures, like antennas and solar panels, these problems are especially tough. This is where Oxford Space Systems (OSS) specialises.
Existing deployable structures are complex and prone to jamming and the conventional solutions that increase their reliability often add more complexity and weight. OSS is developing deployable hardware for satellites that is lighter, simpler and costs less.
OSS draws on the elegant simplicity of nature, origami and new materials. Founded in September 2013 by Mike Lawton, it is one of the small, agile companies transforming the UK space sector. In a couple of years, it has grown from one employee to more than 10 – thanks to help from Innovate UK, the Satellite Applications Catapult and the Harwell Launchpad competition.
A £100,000 grant helped OSS bring its innovative and elegant designs to life and has attracted further investment from venture capitalists Longwall Ventures.
Boom structures – extendable arms that unfold from a satellite to position other payloads, such as antennas and solar panels – are complex things. The moving parts can jam and distort in the cold of space. They need their own power system and take up precious space on a satellite that could be used for commercial payloads.
Mike approached Professor Zhong You, an expert in origami structures and materials at the University of Oxford, to find a better solution. Working with Prof. You, Oxford Space Systems developed innovative and compact designs using a ‘shape memory’ materials made up of fibres and resins that unfurl in a controlled way – rather like leaf on a stem.
The result has been two incredibly simple and light structures: the AstrotubeTM and AstrotubeTM Max. The AstrotubeTM is a retractable boom that fits inside the equivalent of a matchbox when stowed and extends up to 3 metres when deployed, capable of carrying light payloads. The AstrotubeTM Max is larger, more robustly designed and able to carry heavier payloads, deploying them up to 15m from the spacecraft. These booms are made of a significantly reduced number of moving parts and the risk of mechanical failure is greatly diminished.
OSS developed a 4-metre diameter parabolic antenna – scalable up to 12-metres – neatly covering the entire commercial space market. What makes the structure of the antenna unique is that it requires only a single motor to deploy, unlike other antennas of its type. On top of this, the structure is a lighter design avoided by others because of issues with jamming. But OSS have worked out a way of getting past the jamming and have demonstrated the technology.
“It uses a ring architecture based on a patented linear sliding bearing. The moving hinges let the structure ‘breathe’ so it can recover from any potential jamming and distortion,” said Mike.
Working with UK and foreign partners, the next steps are to develop the reflector surface for the antenna and connect it to the AstrotubeTM Max to provide a complete antenna payload solution.
OSS produced a 2.2 metre TRL6 demonstrator of the AstrotubeTM Max funded by a Harwell LaunchPad grant from Innovate UK. It has been attracting interest around the world
OSS is also working with LuxSpace to include a deployable antenna array within the maritime tracking microsatellite constellation, AIS, being developed for the European Space Agency.
Launchpad to the Catapult
OSS also had a kickstart from the Launchpad competition, run by Innovate UKand the Science and Technology Facilities Council. It offered funding for businesses with innovative projects connected to the space cluster at Harwell in Oxfordshire.
“It was perfect for us. The fact that we could apply as a ‘pre-startup’ enabled us to start OSS to develop this technology,” Mike commented.
It also led to a new relationship with the Satellite Applications Catapult, helping OSS expand its network and raise its profile. For Mike, the Satellite Applications Catapult offers both the buzz of innovation and the essential support and validation that start-ups need to progress.
“It gives us access to invaluable resources and skills, such as the experts and test facilities at RAL Space and the High-Performance Computing (HPC) at Sci-Tech Daresbury. The networking at Harwell is phenomenal. It’s the right innovation environment for our business to succeed.”
“As well as powerful networking, the real value of the Catapult has been its business expertise in the satellite industry. We went through a short, intensive programme to refine our business plan to make it suitable for the next round of investor funding. Having their industry-wide experience looking in on our business plan from a space background was extremely useful and we have now refined the business plan to a point where we are far more investable.”
OSS is expecting second-round funding in 2015.