From Virtual Vibration Testing to a Digital Test Facility for Spacecraft

Lead Research Organisation: University of Surrey
Department Name: Surrey Space Centre Academic


When we think about spacecraft we tend to refer to planets' exploration, but most of the every-day electrical items we normally use (TV, mobile phone, sat-nav etc.) also use satellites and they require more and more sophisticated technologies. The construction of spacecraft is a very long and complex procedure, which needs to be maintained in line with the development of technologies on Earth. There is the need to make this process faster and more affordable.
In the development of a satellite two factors that significantly affect cost and duration of the process are the design of the spacecraft for MAIT (Manufacturing, Assembly, Integration and Test), and the long testing process the spacecraft has to undergo (structural, thermal, electrical and optical) with all the uncertainties related to it. For both issues a novel approach for space applications, virtual testing, would tackle both issues.

The final aim of this research is to develop an end-to-end digital model which would virtually reproduce all the test facilities into one single umbrella software where the computational model of the spacecraft can be "tested". Doing this before the real test would give the manufacturer company the real scenario their spacecraft will undergo during test without any unexpected turnout. This, on one side, allows an ideal design in terms of cost/efficiency compromise, and, on the other side, prepares the company on all the possible issues during the test phase, which can be promptly corrected for a smoother physical test procedure.
The research is split into three stages: i) building on the expertise gained in the last 2.5 years as postdoc working on virtual testing for vibration tests, the virtual model will be further developed and refined for all possible industry implementations (e.g. correlation of the finite element model, replacement of specific vibration test processes for drastic reduction of over-testing); ii) following the same guidelines developed for vibration tests, virtual models will be built for thermal, electrical and optical tests (comparing virtual results to real test scenarios and nominal analyses); iii) all the virtual models will be collated to develop the final end-to-end digital model (with production of guidelines for use).

The final product outcome of the research will be a tool beneficial to multiple entities: clearly test facilities, which can provide an extra service to manufacturer companies before performing the real tests on the spacecraft; small companies which would take advantage of the significant amount of savings in terms of time and cost for accessing a more affordable market; research and development sector, which can take advantage of the virtual models built for the different test facilities and investigate the possible modifications to the current procedures, same as this research is doing for structural tests.

Planned Impact

The final aim of applying virtual testing for space applications is creating a single end-to-end digital model of the space system to support Assembly Integration and Test. This means computationally replicating all the test facilities and run the model of the spacecraft through them before this is actually done in reality. This provides benefits from several points of view:
- It can be used as pre-test tool to predict the behaviour of the satellite under test when this is actually tested because all the spurious effects of the facilities are modelled into the final digital model. A new paradigm is created with integrations of the test simulation in the design process.
- It can be used to significantly improve the test procedures having the possibility to trade off different test parameters to establish how best conduct test run without damage to spacecraft
- It can be used as post-test application (for instance in the context of vibration tests, it can be used to properly correlate the computational model to experimental results)

In light of this, the outcome of this research can be extremely beneficial for the following:
- TEST FACILITIES: taking into consideration especially the new government project of the test centre to be built in Harwell, the end-to-end digital model is a great opportunity for this test facility to provide an extra service to the satellite manufacturers. The computational model of the spacecraft can be run through the virtual testing software and the test procedures can be adapted by the manufactures according to the virtual results.
- SATELLITE COMPANIES: having the possibility to virtually run the tests (before the real ones) would result in a drastic reduction of over-testing of the satellite and therefore the design would be for flight, not for test as it currently happens. This is translated into financial benefits and would open the market to many small manufacturing companies, as virtual testing would represent an important step into making spacecraft production more affordable.
- RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT: an important outcome of this research would be opening the way to a large sector of research and development. The first outcome of this fellowship is investigating all the major improvements in terms of industry procedures which are created by the introduction of virtual testing for vibration tests. The same will be done for all the other test aspects (thermal, electrical and optic) which virtual models are created and developed within this project.


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