High Strain Composites for Spacecraft Deployable Structures

High Strain Composites for Spacecraft Deployable Structures

Developing and launching satellites into space is a challenging and expensive enterprise and, as a result, the launch is expensive, costing on the order of $10,000 per pound. Thus, reducing mass is a driving requirement for space systems. The volume and mass of launch vehicles are tied to each other. Large satellites require large fairings (structures whose primary function is to produce a smooth outline and reduce drag), which are naturally heavier than small ones; therefore, satellites must be as compact as possible during launch to minimize the mass of the fairing and the launch vehicle. However, once on-orbit, satellites require large solar arrays to generate power and large antennas for communications. Solar panels for geosynchronous communication satellites have a wingspan of 150 feet, and communication antennas can be 54 feet in diameter. In comparison, the maximum diameter of a launch fairing is 15 feet. Thus, many parts of the satellite must be compactly stowed for launch and unfurled on-orbit, which is the role of deployable structures.

For the last four decades, deployable structures have largely used metallic pin-clevis joints for articulation. These joints require motors for actuation, springs and latches to lock out, and complex design and testing efforts to ensure they do not bind or fail during operations. As a result, deployment systems were heavy, complex, and expensive. To solve this problem, the Air Force Research Laboratory, Space Vehicles Directorate (AFRL/RV) developed high strain composites (HSCs) that provide revolutionary improvements in deployment mass, cost and complexity, thereby dramatically improving system performance and enabling new satellite concepts and architectures.

Over the past 10 years, AFRL/RV has developed and patented a portfolio of composite structure technologies. In August 2016, the Directorate signed two exclusive Patent License Agreements (PLAs) with Roccor, LLC, enabling Roccor to build solar array development systems to support mega-constellations. Under the two PLAs, Roccor will undertake the development and marketing of six AFRL/RV patents. Roccor’s deployable structure systems utilize elastically stowed and deployable fiber-reinforced polymer composite structural elements. The company specializes in product solutions when traditional deployable space systems are unable to meet performance and/or cost requirements. Its approach is based on leveraging HSC technology from AFRL that enables dramatically lighter, simpler and, hence, lower cost solutions.

HSCs have also transitioned to nine other industry partners to address a wide variety of applications in addition to the significant and well-established transfer with Roccor. The technologies HSCs enable increase satellite capability/capacity, increase DoD space architecture resiliency, and reduce cost/mass for a wide range of missions, including communication and GPS. For communication satellites, this means more bandwidth, faster speeds, and better signal reliability/consistency (i.e., no dropouts) at reduced cost, whether those satellites are broadcasting vital military communications or DIRECTV programming.

Contact: Dr. Andrew Williams, (505) 846-0396, andrew.williams.24@us.af.mil

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