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ESA advances satellite testing capabilities at Europe's largest thermal vacuum facility
Based at the ESTEC Test Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands, the LSS has performed pre-flight testing for many of ESA's biggest missions, including Rosetta, Juice and Plato. The chamber incorporates a Sun simulator with up to 19 IMAX cinema-class Xenon light bulbs and liquid or gaseous nitrogen shrouds lining its walls to reproduce the chill of space.
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ESA advances satellite testing capabilities at Europe's largest thermal vacuum facility
by Robert Schreiber
Noordwijk, Netherlands (SPX) Jan 19, 2024

In the realm of space exploration, testing equipment under conditions that mimic the unforgiving environment of space is critical. At the forefront of this endeavor is the European Space Agency's (ESA) Large Space Simulator (LSS), located at the ESTEC Test Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. This mammoth facility, known for its capability to simulate the vacuum, temperature, and solar radiation conditions of space, has been a cornerstone for testing satellites for major missions like Rosetta, Juice, and Plato.

Central to the LSS's operation are the New Generation Data Collection Units (NgDCUs), a set of four sophisticated hardware units designed to endure the rigors of spaceflight conditions while remaining earthbound. These units, integral to the LSS's thermal data acquisition system, play a pivotal role in ensuring that satellites can withstand the harsh environment of space.

The Large Space Simulator, notable for its immense size, can accommodate structures as large as an upended London double-decker bus, measuring 15 meters in height and 10 meters in width. It features a Sun simulator that reproduces unfiltered sunshine, enabling entire satellites to be operated in space-equivalent illumination, vacuum, and temperature conditions for extended periods.

The NgDCUs, currently undergoing their biennial calibration process to ensure accuracy, are not commonly seen as they are fitted into the equipment bay of the motion simulator within the LSS. This motion simulator is crucial for rotating a satellite during testing within the cylindrical chamber. The NgDCUs' design allows them to rotate along with the test satellite, a feature that sets them apart from typical acquisition systems used in other test chambers.

Each NgDCU is capable of fitting seven data cards and can acquire test data across a maximum of 54 channels, collectively handling more than 1500 channels. These units are connected to thermocouples and other sensors embedded within the test satellite, gathering essential thermal data during each test campaign. This data, supplemented by optical and thermal cameras mounted within the LSS, provides a comprehensive understanding of how a satellite will perform in space.

Koen Debeule, an electronics engineer at ESA's ESTEC Test Centre, highlights the unique nature of these units: "For typical test chambers, this kind of acquisition system would be operated outside vacuum. But because these units need to rotate along with the test satellite, they have to be built to withstand sustained hard vacuum and temperature swings. Being built to flight quality in this way really makes them unique."

The collaboration in the development of the NgDCUs underscores the collective effort in European space technology. Hardware for these units came from Syderal in Switzerland, while the software was supplied by Terma in the Netherlands, demonstrating a pan-European endeavor in advancing space testing capabilities.

The LSS, operated for ESA by European Test Services, stands as the largest facility of its kind in Europe. It offers a complete suite of equipment for satellite testing under a single roof, including a Sun simulator with up to 19 IMAX cinema-class Xenon light bulbs and liquid or gaseous nitrogen shrouds lining its walls to replicate the chill of space.

This facility, with its advanced testing capabilities and the unique features of the NgDCUs, continues to be a vital asset for ESA's space exploration initiatives, ensuring that the spacecrafts launched are well-prepared to withstand the challenges of their extraterrestrial missions.

Related Links
ESTEC Test Centre
Space Technology News - Applications and Research

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