Debris Collision Alert System: the Space data recorder

Over 26,000 artificial objects and more than 2,700 operative satellites are orbiting around the Earth every day. In this environment, it is obvious the classification of the space debris as an actual danger for the space itself, but also for air traffic, people and buildings on our Planet. Most of these objects are specifically designed to destroy themselves by re-entering the atmosphere at the end of their operations; nevertheless, an average 10-40% of them survives and impacts the Earth’s surface. This risk is more and more tangible, and the world’s space agencies are now acting to stop it. As part of the European project AHEAD in 2018, and De-Risk IDEA-RAP.ID in 2019, Bercella partnered with Aviosonic in manufacturing the DeCAS, the Debris Collision Alert Systemand innovative black box system for space missions.

The DeCAS is conceived to act as a black box for space vehicles, during both in-orbit and atmospheric re-entry phases. If the system is not in dialogue with the hosting space vehicle, it will typically remain dormant for the operative life cycle of the hosting satellite and will “wake up” once triggered by specific conditions, such as atmospheric re-entry. The DeCAS capsule is completely non-reliant from the hosting satellite and is provided with its own sensors. During the re-entry phase, the DeCAS will forecast in real time the expected impact area of debris, broadcasting in real time the alert message directly to the responsible authorities for people, structures and air traffic safety. The major challenge consists in protecting the Electronic Unit from the extreme temperatures (up to 1,600°C) that it will face while re-entering the atmosphere, one for which Bercella developed an innovative Composite Materials Shell.

End-of-life satellites disposal is a priority for the European Space Agency, aiming for foster commercial usage of space technologies and ensuring sustainability of future space activities. The DeCAS is a ready-to-use technical solution to the issue of space debris for both in-orbit and on-ground collision. In order to sustain the critical re-entry phase condition, the DeCAS is equipped with a protective shield. Bercella and Aviosonic, within the partnership for the development and manufacturing of DeCAS’ shield, have spent less than two years to successfully complete the development and the manufacturing of a prototype qualified to sustain re-entering condition. This same prototype has been successfully tested at the Laboratorie d’Astrophysique de Marseille and at Bruxelles’ Von Karman Institute. Specifically, the testing was upheld within the Von Karman Institute Plasmatron facility and the successful results were used for European Space Agency’s De-Risk IDEA-RAP.ID project.

Bercella participated in the project, designing and manufacturing the shell, that turned from a cylindric to an ogival shape. This was necessary because a spheric surface is more favourable towards waves compaction and, subsequently, the component’s functionality is improved. In addition, the shell required an ablative material coating, to resist high temperatures. This material is made of Composites and a polymer matrix with a high carbon residue, that protects the component during the re-entry phase from temperatures up to 1,600 °C.

The voices of the protagonists

Davide Solaroli, Bercella Head of Sales – Space Division, describes his first touch point with Aviosonic: “I remember getting in touch for the first time with Aviosonic a few years ago during Nantes B2B Space Meetings. I used to go there to develop new opportunities with new clients and to always be informed on the space sector’s latest news. I recall being very interested about Piermarco and his innovative start-up because it was clear that they had the right idea, also because space debris already was a hot topic in the Industry. We had a chat and he made me notice that Aviosonic needed an experienced partner in Composite Materials to design and manufacture the external shell. We started our collaboration and I’ve felt very proud when I saw the DeCAS successful test at the VKI; it was the proof that curiosity really drives innovation.”

Luca Serventi, Bercella Structural Designer, described the project as a “very challenging one, because Bercella was in charge of all the designing part, from the beginning to the end, and we didn’t have a previous know-how, since we had never done something like that. All the materials have been studied and used for the very first time”.

Piermarco Martegani, Aviosonic Space Tech CEO, comments the Plasmatron and LAM tests: “The successful results of these tests have shown how even a small company like Aviosonic is able, with the support of extremely competent industrial partners such as Bercella, to achieve extraordinary results, even in a short-given time. Given the results of the recent years, thanks also to the partnership with Bercella, soon we hope to raise our system to a safety standard for space activities”.

Here is the VKI’s point of view about the project, in a note diffused from the Institute: “DeCAS’ modularity would allow recurrent low-cost missions that will be appealing for space players seeking for relevant data on the divestment of components, parts and other materials that need to be re-designed following the D4D paradigm. VKI firmly believes that there is no alternative to a modular platform capable of recurrent “cheap” flights to exploit the commercial benefits of the space-debris emerging market”.

Specifically, the successful testing was carried out in the Von Karman Institute (VKI) Plasmatron facility within the European Space Agency’s De-Risk activity named IDEA-RAP.ID led by VKI (ESA contract no. 4000127100/19/NL/BJ/va, link-to-project-website).