The new age of space exploration
From Mars rovers to space tourism, the exploration programs being developed today aim to make space more accessible and expand our understanding of the universe.
“By 2023, I’m highly confident that we will have reached orbit many times with Starship and that it will be safe enough for human transport,” said billionaire Elon Musk. Last year, his company SpaceX successfully launched two Nasa astronauts into orbit in the first privately designed and built spacecraft to carry astronauts to space.
Musk, the CEO of Tesla and co-founder of PayPal, is not alone in viewing space as the next frontier for business. Tech leaders including him and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos are joined by Japan’s PD Aerospace, China’s Kuang-Chi Science, and other private companies in the quest to make space accessible. Shuji Ogawa, CEO of PD Aerospace, said “Space tourism is a universal dream, not only for the Japanese but for all people.”
At the same time, the world’s space agencies are continuing their exploration missions. Space telescopes, planetary rovers and probes continue to expand our knowledge of neighboring planets and search for the secrets of the universe. This is perhaps the most exciting period for humankind’s study of space for 40 years.
To make these missions possible, spacecraft need robust, high performance, long life and reliable batteries that provide power in the most inhospitable conditions. Saft first made a battery for a satellite in 1966 and today has the largest fleet of batteries for satellites in space.
Uncovering the secrets of the universe
In April 2020, the CHEOPS (CHaracterising ExOPlanets Satellite) began scientific operations. Launched in late 2019, CHEOPS is a partnership between the European Space Agency (ESA) and Swiss Space Office and is the first mission dedicated to characterize exoplanets, i.e. - planets orbiting around stars outside our solar system.
CHEOPS, which uses a Saft lithium-ion VES 16 battery for power when solar power is unavailable, has already analyzed systems including TOI-178, a star more than 200 light years from Earth. It was thought to have three orbiting planets but CHEOPS has confirmed that they were six.
Meanwhile, the ESA’s ExoMars Rover is due to launch in 2022 and will reach the Red Planet a year later, to begin its search for signs that Mars once supported life. Also due to launch in 2022 is Euclid, a near-infrared space telescope which will carry out a six-year study to learn more about dark energy and dark matter.
Both ExoMars and Euclid, among other forthcoming missions, will be powered by Saft batteries.
The unique challenges of space
For both scientific missions and companies pursuing commercial opportunities in space, the biggest challenge remains safety: some early pioneers might be willing to accept a high level of risk, but a passenger service will not be in business for long without an impeccable safety record.
In addition to safety, consistency and reliability are vital for space missions – and that, of course, applies to the batteries that power them. “Space batteries have to cope with extreme temperatures – anything from -20°C to +50°C,” says Annie Sennet, executive vice president, Saft Space & Defense.
Satellites have batteries that are charged when sunlight is available and provide power when it isn’t. Landers and probes require batteries that can stay dormant for a long time while the vehicle travels to its destination and then reliably provide power when it is needed.
“The batteries need to be able to withstand the vibrations at launch and, in some cases, the impact of landing,” says Sennet. “They must handle huge amounts of radiation and, of course, they cannot fail. Space batteries undergo three to four times as much testing as normal batteries.”
The ExoMars Rover is a particular challenge, she adds: “The battery has to be completely sterile because we absolutely cannot introduce new bacteria to Mars. We always use a clean room for final battery assembly, but this battery is being put together in what is effectively a clean room within a clean room.”
The second Space Age
The first peak of the Space Age was in the 1960s, when humans first orbited the earth and landed on the Moon. By the 1990s, with less investment in space exploration, public excitement had waned. The retirement of Nasa’s space shuttle in 2011 marked the end of an era.
However, human beings are not content to stay earthbound and the flurry of activity in recent years suggests the dawn of a new Space Age, one that aims to answer the deepest questions about our existence and allow many of us to become space travelers.
Jeff Bezos’s space company Blue Origin, for example, aims to take passengers into space, and expects to put its New Glenn rocket into orbit in late 2022 and return it safely to Earth.
He has said his vision is “to get to a place ultimately where it is much more like commercial airlines,” and in the long term, aims for nothing less than “millions of people living and working in space.”