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Safer space vehicles thanks to optic fibre sensors

A research team from the TECNALIA Technological Corporation, through its Aerospace Unit, together with the ITEAM Institute at the Valencia Polytechnic University, the ilicitana Emxys aerospace company and the Institute for Photonic Sciences (ICFO), have developed a new protection system for the European Space Agency (ESA) through which safety for space vehicles is enhanced.

The system involves monitoring based on optic fibre sensors that enable the visualisation of the real time temperature of elements making up the heat protection shield – one of the most sensitive parts where maximum temperatures are reached in reusable space vehicles (such as space shuttles). “The incorporation of our equipment in a manned vehicle significantly increases its levels of safety and reliability. With our technology, we can measure the integrity of the highly sensitive tiles of the thermal protection system (TPS) - on re-entering the atmosphere they may have to withstand temperatures of more than 800ºC for several minutes – and, therefore enhance their safety”, explained those responsible for the project. The designed protection system means an important advance, being part of what is known as HMS (Health Monitoring Systems), in space vehicle structures and helps the safety elements to be much more robust in conditions of electromagnetic perturbations on launching and take-off or during incorporation into the launch pad. The nature of monitoring based on optic fibre sensors enables the placing of a great number of sensors on the structure of the shuttle, thus increasing the number of available points for the measurement of temperature, “something which, with traditional technologies, has not been viable”. Moreover, very light devices are involved, directly facilitating the possible number of sensors to be installed, as they occupy little overall volume or weight. The development of this new system is fruit of an innovation project financed by the ESA and successfully developed over the last two years. The research team officially presented the project results on the 18 and 19 of November at the ESA installations in the Netherlands.