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Space: technology in the state of the art

Launch of Spacelab (1983).

Launch of Spacelab (1983).

11 European countries met in Switzerland in 1960 to lay the foundations for what would become the European Space Research Organization (ESRO), now the European Space Agency (ESA). Spain was present at this meeting, although in a very modest position.

Nevertheless, the meeting provided all the impulse that SENER’s Managing Director at the time, José Manuel “Manu” de Sendagorta, needed to embark upon research in the field of aerospace, with the support of his former professor Carlos Sánchez Tarifa –who was working as an aeronautics engineer at the Spanish National Aerospace Technology Institute (INTA)– and the irreplaceable José “Txetxu” Rivacoba.

SENER’s history in space began in 1966 when Sendagorta and Tarifa were on one of their trips to the ESRO’s Paris offices and found out about a call for tenders for the design and construction of a rocket launch tower in Kiruna, Sweden. But SENER did not win the contract. It was awarded to another company instead, and SENER challenged the decision, alleging and proving that the proposed tower foundation design was faulty because it had failed to take the weather conditions the tower would have to withstand into account. As an engineer who was born in Spain but had lived in Russia as a child, Rivacoba was well aware of these weather conditions, so it was he who ultimately designed the facility. The first Skylark rocket took off from the Kiruna tower months later with the mission of studying the aurora borealis and the variations in the Earth’s magnetic field near the North Pole. SENER’s first space contract was a resounding success. Proof of this is that this base in the arctic circle remains operational 50 years after it was opened.

Proba-3 mission.
Proba-3 mission.

AN EXCEPTIONAL TEAM

That SENER team of engineers had a special, almost heroic impulse behind them. They were part of a bold team that could forge into an engineering field that was completely unknown to them. The projects SENER had worked on in the 1960s were mainly large cranes for ports: a far cry from the aerospace industry. The engineers’ experience, innovative spirit and synergy drove them onwards.

SENER IN POLAND

SENER opened its Warsaw offices in 2006, and since then it has delivered high-technology projects. Backed by SENER, the Poland office began to create an aerospace team in 2012 that would make it a leading company in the Polish space market.

SENER is fulfilling its mission and it is now one of the main players in the Polish space industry now that Poland has joined the ESA. This is thanks to the company’s long-term business plan in the country, its broad knowledge of the sector, the superlative technical skills of its local professionals and its sterling reputation among the local institutions with which it maintains trust-based relationships.

The Poland office works on projects such as the Advanced Telescope for High Energy Astrophysics (ATHENA), in which it is in charge of the mechanical design, production and integration of the instrument selection mechanism and the execution plan that will guarantee its performance; it is developing the earth-based support mechanism for the entire Euclid satellite and is managing the purchasing, production, structural analysis and integration of the actuators for the antenna; not to mention the ExoMars mission for 2016 and 2020.

Over the following half century, and especially in the last 15 years, the number of professionals working in the Space area has skyrocketed and it is now expected to surpass 200 by the end of 2016. Not only does this group of SENER engineers contribute with technology and methods, they also know how to design, providing different innovative solutions. They clearly represent the state of the art.

ATHENA mission.
ATHENA mission.

FIVE DECADES IN SPACE

In the years after it entered this sector, SENER mainly focused on supplying mechanisms for space, although it slowly began to add structural and electronic components and Attitude and Orbit Control Systems, in addition to working on guidance, navigation and control (AOCS/GNC): a natural evolution after the incomparable milestone of Kiruna. The company’s subsequent space projects were for earth-based support equipment related to launchers. The company’s first opportunity to work on flight equipment came in the 1970s with SpaceLab: the first major contract in which SENER contributed 165 earth-based support devices and led a consortium of European enterprises. By the 1980s, the company had begun its consolidation in mechanisms for the flight segment, particularly in deployment systems, most notably the SOHO and Cluster missions. In the 1990s, SENER won the contract to supply the complete guidance, navigation and control system for the Herschel and Planck space telescopes. In this regard, it should be emphasized that SENER’s prestige in this field led it to the conclusion that it had the technical capability to deliver actuation and control systems applied to defense and aeronautics, and more importantly that it had the necessary know-how and experience to provide added value. Operating in this market involved mass-production, something new compared to the company’s work in the space sector, in which usually only one or two devices were delivered.

SENER is now the leading Spanish company in the ESA’s science programs thanks to its engineering contributions and because it participates in over half of the ESA’s programs.

After the turn of the millennium, SENER added the optics discipline to its portfolio when it won the contract to deliver the high performance, high resolution camera for the SEOSat/Ingenio satellite.

SENER’s presence on ESA projects has been growing for some time now thanks to the reliability of its equipment. It is now the leading Spanish company in the ESA’s science programs thanks to its engineering contributions and because it participates in over half of the ESA’s programs. Its latest projects include: JUICE, ATHENA, Solar Orbiter, Proba-3, Gaia, BepiColombo, ExoMars, IXV, the Curiosity rover, Euclid, LISA Pathfinder, SEOSat/Ingenio, and the Third Generation Meteosat.

Gaia satellite.
Gaia satellite.

VISION FOR THE FUTURE

SENER’s current strategy in the aerospace sector calls for growth on the value scale: i.e., taking on greater responsibilities in order to tackle increasingly more complex subsystems. The industry is also evolving toward what is known as “new space”, which will apparently shape the immediate future and share the stage with the traditional institutional clients. This new scenario will still feature major missions for observing and exploring the universe, but they will be joined by projects from new telecommunications, constellation and launcher markets. This will mean moving up the chain and significantly stepping up the number of clients and agencies with whom SENER works.

In order to fulfill this commercial strategy, SENER draws on the experience it has accumulated with its medium-size mass productions in the defense industry in order to be able to deliver orders for hundreds of units, instead of the one, two or three prototypes it has been producing hitherto. SENER is prepared to take on new demands with its expertise in production engineering, where it can build products from the start of their design phase: a crucial aspect in guaranteeing an optimal price/quality ratio. SENER’s goal of permanent improvement means leveraging new capabilities and tackling ever-more demanding challenges.

Hubble telescope.
Hubble telescope.

RELIABILITY, QUALITY, RIGOR AND PRECISION

The prestige afforded by SENER’s 100% reliability record in space is the result of years of rigorous work in all its processes, where there is no room for errors, and where quality, precision and rigor must be optimal - more so than in any other engineering field.

It is hard to find another similar-sized company in Europe that can efficiently bring together professionals from different disciplines with highly versatile profiles the way that SENER does. The company starts from scratch to respond to highly-specific needs in the state of the art, as is typical on the ESA’s science and observation missions.

Launch Cluster space mission (2000).
Launch Cluster space mission (2000).

With its 50-year history in space and over 270 devices and systems delivered for satellites and vehicles for the NASA, ESA, JAXA and Roscosmos space agencies, the results SENER has reaped represent a major success for the company, just like on that cold March day in Kiruna.

Gallery

Kiruna project team. From left to right: José Luis Echeandía, Gabriel Vilallonga, Carlos Sánchez Tarifa, Manu Sendagorta, Txetxu Rivacoba, Lorenzo Sánchez and Alberto Martín.  Rocket launch tower at Kiruna (outside view).  Rocket launch tower at Kiruna (inside view).

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