Could carbon fibre be used for spacecraft and laser light technology be used to transmit data to Earth? This is what researchers from the University of Auckland (UoA) and German space experts have teamed up to find out.
Lightweight and flexible, carbon fibre composites “offer many advantages over the metals traditionally used in space” and “can be used for complex parts that have different mechanical requirements”, says Associate Professor John Cater from the Department of Engineering Science in the Faculty of Engineering at UoA.
“Our research will be about how these materials survive and perform in space-like conditions and what happens to them on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere,” he says.
A joint programme between New Zealand and the German Aerospace Center, known as the DLR, the two projects are of eight awarded a share of $8 million from the Ministry of Business and Innovation’s Catalyst Fund, which supports international science and innovation that benefits New Zealand. It is being led by Cater, along with Dr Nick Rattenbury from the Department of Physics in the Faculty of Science. Both researchers have been working with the DLR since 2017.
“The DLR has excellent people, excellent facilities and a level of space research expertise that runs very deep,” says Cater. “We are delighted they want to keep working with us.”
Cater is working on the project looking at the use of carbon fibre reinforced polymers for space launch vehicles and deployable structures such as solar panels and antennas that open once a spacecraft reaches its destination.
“Our research will be about how these materials survive and perform in space-like conditions and what happens to them on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.”
Rattenbury’s project is about the use of free-space optical communications (or laser light technology) to transmit information from spacecraft down to Earth – in this case, to a DLR component that will be installed at the University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory at Takapō (Tekapo).
“Traditionally, getting information from space has involved radio waves,” says Rattenbury. “The alternative technology using laser light means that we are able to transmit more information more securely.”
As an optical astronomer, Rattenbury he is used to collecting information from stars. However, with this research focussed on collecting “huge amounts of information from fast-moving spacecraft”, this is where the expertise of the German team comes in.
“Germany leads the world in this technology, so to be working with these researchers and being respected for what we bring to the project is very exciting.”
In comparison, New Zealand is a young player in the industry – which has advantages, says Cater.
“It means we are a small community with a nimble infrastructure where things can happen quickly.”