What is the restriction on space technology

Space technology made in Austria

Carbon components for lighter transport rockets

In contrast to the "big" Ariane, the smaller European Vega rocket is supposed to bring lower loads such as weather or earth observation satellites into an orbit close to the earth. After two serious incidents in 2019 and 2020, the Vega starts are not necessarily lucky. All the more hope lies in the more powerful successor model Vega-C, which will replace the current generation and is expected to take off for the first time in 2021.

All rocket stages have been developed from scratch for this purpose. Vega-C components also come from the Upper Austrian developer Peak Technology, who specializes in carbon fiber composite components. As part of an FFG project, the ignition housing and a connecting clamping ring for the second rocket stage "Z40" were built. The component in which the fuel is ignited by means of an electric pulse must be extremely pressure and erosion resistant. The carbon version developed by Peak Technology has a major advantage over the earlier metal versions: it is much lower in weight.

Eagle eyes looking for space junk

Local research teams jumped on the trend towards small satellites early on. In addition to scientific goals, the inexpensive technology also serves, for example, university teaching. The development of the first Austrian nanosatellite Tugsat-1, which carries out seismological measurements as part of the Brite mission, began around 2005. Eight years later it was launched into orbit.

The small satellite Adler-1, which is due to launch into space this year, can represent a current development. On the mission, the Austrian Space Forum (ÖWF) is cooperating with the Silicon Valley start-up Spire Global and the local investor Findus Venture.

The "eagle" is supposed to track down space debris at a height of 600 kilometers - after all, it is assumed that there are more than 170 million more than sand grain-sized particles in orbit. Two instruments developed by the OeWF are on board. One works on a radar basis, the other consists of a membrane that registers impinging microparticles.

Precise thrust for a new generation of satellites

The commercialization of space travel is supported, among other things, by a new form of satellite: inexpensive small satellites. Today they perform a wide variety of tasks in the field of meteorology, earth observation or telecommunications.

From the start-up Enpulsion - a spin-off company of the FH Wiener Neustadt research subsidiary Fotec - comes a new type of drive for this new generation of spacecraft. Their "Feep" drive uses the element indium as fuel. When heated and energized, charged particles, ions, are detached from it and ejected through pointed needles, creating a recoil.

Dozens of satellites are already equipped with these ion drives. The system could even be used to explore near-Earth asteroids for future resource extraction.

At Fotec, as part of a project with the space agency Esa, they are also in the process of further developing the drive for scientific missions. That means: The thrusters have to be more efficient, more exact and their production has to be documented more precisely. The thrust has to increase three to four times compared to small satellite applications, says Bernhard Seifert, who is responsible for the electric drives at Fotec. "That can be solved either with larger designs or an arrangement of several thrusters."

The high accuracy of the electric drives could benefit a special mission in the future - the measurement of gravitational waves from space. In 2015, the first evidence of these changes in space-time, already described by Albert Einstein, was provided in the Ligo Observatory in the USA. In the Esa mission Lisa, three spacecraft that are millions of kilometers apart but are in contact by laser beams are supposed to provide even more comprehensive data on the phenomenon.

Mars crater brought to earth as a 3D model

If the landing of the Mars rover Perseverance of the US space agency NASA in the Jezero crater of the Red Planet is successful on Thursday, one of the mission's most important instruments will go into service: Mastcam-Z, a highly developed camera system that produces detailed 3D images and - makes videos. The rover's "eyes" will help navigate and identify geologically interesting structures that are worth looking for traces of life and water.

On Earth, researchers use the camera data, among other things, to create a 3D reconstruction of the rover's surroundings. A software tool is responsible for this, which the Austrian research institute Joanneum Research in Graz as project coordinator and the Vienna Center for Virtual Reality and Visualization VRVis developed together with other partners. The 3D models that are generated with "Pro3D" - the name of the tool - provide the basis for an interactive exploration and geological interpretation of the Mars terrain. Pro3D is freely accessible to scientists (see link below).

The same technology will also be used for the Russian-European Exo-Mars mission, which is scheduled to start in 2022. Here the camera instrument Pancam takes 3D recordings in wide-angle format. In this case, too, not only the visible light is captured, but "an optimized combination of wavelengths, some of which are in the infrared range," says Gerhard Paar from Joanneum Research - they are also the basis for 3D reconstructions. A second camera from the Exo Mars mission focuses on details of rock, sand and soil samples down to the sub-millimeter range. The Clupi instrument, short for close-up imager, is intended to help discover biosignatures. Here Joanneum Research delivered on-board software for image processing.

Exact steering maneuvers towards Mercury

Bepi Colombo can soon celebrate halftime. The probe, which is to inspect the geology, atmosphere and magnetosphere of the planet closest to the Sun from 2025, will soon have completed almost half of its seven-year journey to Mercury. Several technologies on board come from Ruag Space Austria, which belongs to the Swiss Ruag Group and develops and produces its high-tech systems in Vienna-Meidling and in Berndorf in Lower Austria.

A specialty of the company are thermal protective covers, which in the case of Bepi Colombo have to protect against extreme temperatures of –200 to +450 degrees Celsius. In addition, there is a control system for solar cells - the automatic alignment of the panels creates a balance between the energy requirement and the thermal balance of the probe - as well as a steering system for the ion thrusters of the carrier system, which brings a European Esa and a Japanese Jaxa probe to Mercury, from the Ruag Laboratories.

The thruster control is responsible for bringing the drive modules into exactly the correct angular position for each maneuver. "Our mechanism allows positioning with a resolution of one thousandth of a degree. That corresponds to a movement step size on the engine of just eight micrometers, i.e. eight thousandths of a millimeter," says Christian Neugebauer, head of the mechanics department at Ruag Space Austria.

Bepi Colombo is just one of many missions with Ruag participation. The company supplies technologies for one of the instruments in the James Webb telescope, thermal systems for Galileo geopositioning satellites, and navigation systems for the new European environmental satellites Sentinel 6. For the first time, the latter can use not only GPS, but also the European Galileo system to position the satellites themselves . The Esa management recently attested the GPS receivers to have had an "outstanding performance" so far.

With new measuring methods to the moons of Jupiter

The icy moons of Jupiter, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto are a particularly hot tip for those looking for extraterrestrial life. Researchers believe that huge oceans are hidden beneath its surface. As part of the Esa mission Juice (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer), these satellites of the gas giant are therefore to be examined more closely.

One focus of the mission is the investigation of the existing magnetic fields. This is where new technology comes into play, which the Graz Institute for Space Research (IWF) of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) developed together with the Institute for Experimental Physics at Graz University of Technology. As part of a three-sensor magnetometer, the so-called quantum interference magnetometer from Graz will make more precise measurements possible than before.

In contrast to earlier versions, measurements are based on an optical principle; the physical basis is the so-called quantum interference effect. "During the development period of more than five years, 21 technicians and physicists invested more than 45,000 working hours in the timely completion of the worldwide unique sensor unit", says Werner Magnes, head of the magnetometer group at the IWF.

The OeAW Institute is represented with its magnetometers on a number of missions, including Bepi Colombo and the NASA Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, which examines the Earth's magnetic field. The developers of China's Mars probe, which has just arrived at its destination, also supported the Graz-based company. Apart from the magnetometer, IWF research groups focus on exoplanets, plasma physics, planetary atmospheres, laser distance measurements and on-board computers.

The institute was involved in a number of instruments on the sensational Rosetta mission, which examined comet 67P / Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (Alois Pumhösel, February 21, 2021)