Behind-the-scenes at ESA’s Material Labs

Credit: ESA

Have you ever wanted to find out how ESA’s missions are made space-worthy? In a new series of videos we produced for ESA, follow the “real CSI” for space as we take a close-up look at ESA’s Materials & Electrical Components Laboratory. See how these “space detectives” solve real scientific problems with materials to ensure issues do not occur on future space missions.

ESA’s Materials & Electrical Components Laboratory ensures the quality in testing of electrical components, materials and processes for ESA missions and external projects, considering the unique environmental challenges involved in building for space. We take a look at four different facilities and projects, together with scientists and engineers in a series of videos as follows:

Securing Aeolus against atomic oxygen

Up at the top of the atmosphere the oxygen we breathe is replaced by highly reactive ‘atomic oxygen’ – created by high-energy ultraviolet splitting apart oxygen molecules into separate atoms. Low-orbiting space missions can be susceptible; the effect was first uncovered as early Space Shuttles returned to Earth with their thermal blankets eaten through. ESA’s Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory was tasked with investigating the resilience of ‘beta cloth’ fibre intended for ESA’s Aeolus wind-mapping mission. Testing took place using the Lab’s atomic oxygen generator, followed by microscopic inspection.

Getting Vega’s launch tower moving

Once its mobile launch gantry is moved away, then Europe’s Vega launcher is primed for lift-off – except for the time the stuck gantry refused to move. Solving the problem and getting the gantry mobile again was one of the more unusual tasks of ESA’s Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory. Team members explain in their own words how the movement of the gantry’s wheels and performance of its bearings were analysed with the Lab’s Aramis 3D camera system. Without touching the test subject, Aramis measure the 3D surface deformation of items subjected to various kinds of loads, from mechanical loads to thermal stress. Aramis can identify the slightest submillimetre deformation of materials and structures put to the test.

Keeping Gaia’s memory

ESA’s Gaia mission is generating an enormous amount of data as it works to plot the position of a billion stars in three dimensions. But during pre-flight testing one of Gaia’s memory modules – part of the spacecraft’s on-board ‘hard disk’ – failed. ESA’s Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory was called in to assess the failure, to see if it was a one-off or else caused by a general manufacturing issue. The team made use of their 3D X-ray Tomography Machine to perform non-destructive internal scanning of the module and pin down the source of the fault.

Making – and testing – for Mercury

The ESA-JAXA BepiColombo mission to Mercury must withstand extremely harsh conditions while in orbit around the innermost planet of our Solar System: temperatures in excess of 450 °C, high ultraviolet and electron and proton fluxes. ESA’s Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory was called in by the mission team to test the performance of candidate materials and components throughout the spacecraft – including the high gain antenna used to return the mission’s scientific findings. Heat-resistant ceramic coatings for the antenna were assessed in simulated conditions.

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