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SMILE - SMall Innovative Launcher for Europe

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Mini satellites make Europe more competitive in the new space race

Constellations of small satellites are poised to replace multibillion-dollar systems over the next 25 years, but they are currently forced to hitch rides with the industry behemoths, requiring scheduling even years in advance. Thanks to EU-funded research, Europe will soon have its own small-system launcher systems.

Space

The satellite business is undergoing a transformation. While large satellites for research and communications purposes are not going anywhere soon, the small-satellite market is booming. Think much smaller (1-100 kg), much less expensive, and much faster launch schedules, within weeks or days or even hours. Fourteen organisations from eight European countries joined forces to ensure Europe’s independent access to space for the emerging small-satellite market. The EU-funded SMILE project developed and demonstrated critical technologies for cost-effective solutions supported by a conceptual ground launching facility at the existing Andøya Space Center in Norway. Explosive launch of the small-satellite market According to project coordinator Leo Timmermans, “Over 500 small satellites are currently operational, most of which are 1-5 kg CubeSats. A trend towards more mature and better performing satellites (10-50 kg) is on-going. About 50-100 companies are currently deploying small satellites, and many more will follow.” Over the next 6 years, more than 3 000 of the smallest satellites alone will require launching. By 2030, new constellation installations and replacement missions are projected to create demand for nearly 12 000 small satellites, representing launch service revenues more than USD 69 billion and significant growth opportunities in the industry. Service with a SMILE The SMILE project set out to give European companies and institutions independent access to small-satellite launches, boosting the economy and Europe’s technological leadership. SMILE outcomes surpassed original goals. Rather than the conceptual design of a single launcher system, the SMILE project team produced two three-stage launcher configurations. The hybrid engine propulsion system can launch 70 kg and the liquid propulsion system 140 kg, both into low Earth orbit. Engine tests at partner facilities were impressive, approximating actual launch conditions. The hybrid rocket engine achieved a technology readiness level (TRL) of seven thanks to demonstration in a launch at Andøya Space Centre outside the SMILE project itself. The liquid propulsion engine (TRL 5 to 6) was validated in an industrially relevant environment. Other critical technologies developed and tested include 3D-printed injectors for the liquid propellant engine (TRL 8), automated manufacturing of composites (TRL 5), a prototype third-stage structure, a payload deployment system, and avionics demonstrators. As Timmermans explains, “These innovative concepts reduce the weight of the launcher and reduce the production/operational cost, leading to a more competitive solution.” The technology development was complemented by design of a conceptual ground facility based on mission requirements. It includes a ground segment roadmap, facility planning, and operational concept. In addition to technological advances, the team conducted a small launcher market analysis and business development plan, including technology roadmap. This work demonstrated the clear demand for small launcher systems and proposed a way forward for a European small launcher. Launch system integrators and system/subsystem suppliers will be the key beneficiaries. However, as Timmermans explains, “A SMall Innovative Launcher for Europe will provide independent access to space, allowing many companies and other organisations to provide new services to the global market. SMILE has made Europe smaller. SMILE has made Europe stronger.”

Keywords

SMILE, launcher, small satellite, engine, technology readiness level (TRL), propulsion, constellation, liquid propulsion, hybrid, CubeSat, ground facility, 3D-printed injector, microlauncher

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