On / by Alex Keen

We get a lot of attention for our marketing and publicity projects, with good reason. However, some of the work we’re most proud of doesn’t make it to the front page of Reddit or garner millions of likes on Facebook. As well as being a visually stunning location to shoot imagery of the Earth, the Near Space environment is also a useful test environment for a range of useful technologies and materials. We offer aerospace companies a platform to validate their products helping them along the way to applications in Outer Space.

Developing new technology in the space industry is a lengthy and arduous process. If you’re designing something for use on a satellite platform, you have to be certain of its ability to function. Not only is there an incredible cost associated with placing an object in orbit around the Earth, but should a satellite fall out of orbit or fail to operate as intended, it becomes space debris, which could in turn pose a threat to other satellites or orbiting objects. With the ever-increasing risk of the Kessler Effect becoming a reality, it’s never been more important to ensure the reliability of anything you create before it goes into orbit.

Because of these issues and because access to space is limited to a very slim number of launch providers, the process for validating components and materials for (aero)space applications is de facto standardised according to the requirements of various publicly funded space agencies, most notably NASA, ESA and JAXA. Each of these uses a similar scale, known as the Technology Readiness Level or TRL, to measure how close a new technology is to being sufficiently verified to be used in space.

NASA TRL scale. Other organisations use slightly different definitions, but a TRL6 technology in the USA is highly likely to be at TRL6 in Europe as well.

So where do we fit in to this? Well, as we’ve said, the Near Space environment of our flights is a useful testing ground because the conditions approach those found in the orbital altitudes where satellites operate.

When working with novel materials, things may not behave as expected when subject to certain combinations of stimuli — for example, a material with great tensile strength at room temperature might not fare so well at -60°C. Conventional testing can simulate many of the operating conditions of a payload to complete accuracy, but each additional environmental variable that has to be controlled adds a layer of complexity with a corresponding increase in time and cost. This means the temporal and monetary cost of testing can quickly rack up — especially if one of your tests produces an unexpected result that necessitates a fresh round of investigations.

By contrast, a high altitude balloon flight, while not an exact facsimile of the operating environment, has the benefit of running its payload through a glut of conditions simultaneously, allowing any unexpected interactions to become apparent. Perhaps a greater benefit of a HAB flight is its flexibility. With substantially lower costs and turnaround times on the scale of weeks, not months, using a high altitude testing platform allows for a broader exploratory phase of the development cycle and allows high-value manufacturers to take advantage of unexpected applications as they are uncovered.

Ultimately, a high altitude balloon test platform offers a cheaper entry level price and a vastly reduced wait time to get a payload in the air compared to thermal vacuum chambers, aeroplane piggybacking and sounding rocket tests. If a payload can successfully operate on one of our flights, that’s a good sign to the developers and any third parties who might be supplying the funding! If something goes wrong, the developers don’t necessarily have to wait another six months before they can run another test — and when those tests turn up surprising novel applications, a responsive and flexible platform enables rapid research and exploitation.

Over the past year, we’ve run a number of test flights for a consortium led by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), who have been experimenting with novel graphene-enhanced carbon fibre composites with potential aerospace applications. This work follows on from their work with the National Graphene Institute developing a drone-sized aircraft protoype coated with graphene nanoribbons to minimise the damage caused by lightning strikes and the wide range of temperatures epxerienced throughout a flight. A number of composites have been tested for electrical conductivity, strain, flexibility, RF-transparency, heat conduction and other properties across a series of HAB flights.

A graphene-enhanced payload, constructed by UCLan with Haydale Composite Solutions and launched by Sent Into Space

With R&D projects like this, Sent Into Space act primarily as a launch provider. However, our engineering team are among the most experienced in the world at designing equipment which will survive the conditions of a Near Space balloon flight — they have to be! Consequently, we often work with our customers to determine the best way to measure and verify performance. For example, UCLan approached us with an idea of what they wanted to test from their materials. We collaborated to integrate their materials into our payload and develop the sensing capabilities to measure the materials’ performance throughout the flight.

Not only did these experiments progress the consortium’s research, but the novel and highly visual nature of our work together has garnered some attention from media within the materials industry, raising the profile of the companies involved in the consortium and helping show the value of their work to potential funding bodies. UCLan have subsequently secured a grant for a more thorough investigation into some of their findings.

These research activities lay the groundwork for the advancement of the space industry globally. Using innovative, dynamic testing solutions like the Sent Into Space HAB platform is just one of the ways that UK aerospace companies set themselves apart, cementing the country’s place at the forefront of space research. If you represent a research organisation or an aerospace company, get in touch to find out how we can help you with flight verifiation.

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