Airborne Engineering sets its sights on Mars following funding boost

01/02/22 | Sector/Industry News, Tenant News

Rocket development company Airborne Engineering is set to reach new heights after landing major funding from the European Space Agency (ESA).

The money will be used to further research and test Airborne’s Vertical Take-off Vertical Landing (VTVL) rocket Gyroc with the aim of testing payloads that go on future missions to Mars.

Airborne managing director James Macfarlane said: “It is exciting and something we’ve been working on for a long time. At present, there is no capability for a VTVL test platform for Mars landing work in Europe, so ESA was really interested in what we had developed.”

The funding will come from the ESA’s General Support Technology Programme designed to help engineering concepts become products used in future space missions. It is a year-long programme designed to refine the main control system of Gyroc - the software that guides it.

James added: “We need to gain a really good understanding of the vehicle, model its dynamics, and then carry out lots of tethered testing on the control theory side to test the algorithms, the software, that make the rocket tick. The idea is then to scale up the rocket to a point where it is up to ten times larger and capable of carrying a payload.”

While Gyroc itself will not be a Mars lander, it will be used to test payloads for future rockets and the aim is to carry out that testing in Europe with Airborne Engineering and Westcott in prime position.

James said: “We are a lot further on with the project than anyone else in Europe as we have one of these rockets flying, so although it’s only small scale the technological challenges in scaling it up aren’t very difficult.”

Once a larger version is built, it would be used as a platform for the ESA and any aerospace companies in Europe to test. Airborne Engineering currently conducts static testing at the J1 and J2 sites at Westcott.

For robotic missions to Mars, the lander must be completely autonomous as there is a 30-minute round-trip time delay for radio signals from Earth, making human control impossible. The other problem is finding a suitable landing site. Maps of Mars are not perfect so terrain-based navigation (TBN) will be required.

This is a sensor-based technique using a LIDAR (laser) or radar scanner linked to a map which decides if the landing site is suitable and, if not, redirects the rocket to a better location. This was a technique used by NASA’s Mars landing craft Perseverance last year.

James said: “This new initiative moves us away from being a purely static test provider to an airborne test provider. That means the ESA and the UK would have this capability like NASA has with the Morpheus rocket. The game changer for us is that it means the Gyroc project now has a chance making rapid progress since up to now it has been almost entirely an internal R&D project which we have only been able to work on in periods of down-time between other projects.

“It allows us to expand our range of services so we’re not just testing rocket engines - we could be testing LIDAR instruments and software for terrain navigation.”

Airborne Engineering moved to Westcott more than 12 years ago and is the first company in Europe to test a VTVL rocket. It has worked on other projects with the ESA and is currently collaborating with it to upgrade the J1 site to test liquid oxygen and liquid methane engines making Westcott the only place in the UK where this can be done.

James added: “It’s interesting to see how many new companies are coming to Westcott and upgrading the former test site areas and we are still bringing our sites up to an even higher capability.”

To view tethered test of the VTVL rocket visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kzl64BYYfUw


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