5 mins read 16 Feb 2022

Gilmour partners with SENER on flight termination system

Queensland-based Gilmour Space Technologies have announced they are partnering with Spanish company SENER Aeroespacial to develop an Autonomous Flight Termination System for their ERIS rocket.

The ERIS launch vehicle will use the Autonomous Flight Termination System developed in collaboration with SENER. Credit: Gilmour Space Technologies.

SENER Aeroespacial, a company of the SENER engineering and technology group based in the Basque region of Spain, are working with Gilmour Space Technologies to develop the critical autonomous flight termination system (AFTS) for the ERIS launch vehicle. The AFTS is a smart hardware/software unit with autonomous decision-making capacity responsible for aborting a flight if any anomalies are identified. This system is of the highest criticality and will be subjected to a strict certification process.  

SENER Aeroespacial is currently working on the first phase, developing the software processing algorithms necessary to collect and analyse the flight/vehicle parameters, identify deviations from the nominal trajectory and/or the status of the vehicle, and send, if necessary, the command to terminate the mission. The goal is to have the first prototype ready, in collaboration with Gilmour Space, for testing and certification prior to Eris’ maiden launch later this year.

Flight Termination Software

Rocket Lab’s Running Out Of Fingers’ launch in 2019 used the Autonomous Flight Termination System developed by NASA and has been used on all their Electron launches since. Credit: Rocket Lab.

In a growing marketplace, launch safety is of utmost importance, the AFTS is a critical component of that, allowing the launch vehicle to independently terminate the launch if a specific set of parameters aren’t met. AFTS normally utilise onboard GPS and inertial navigation sensors. Should the launch vehicle go off course, or detect abnormalities in the flight, the AFTS will take over, destroying the vehicle or allowing the launch vehicle to fall back to Earth, burning up on re-entry. 

NASA has also been developing an Autonomous Flight Termination Unit which is currently undergoing flight certification. For New Zealand’s Rocket Lab, it was part of the initial testing of the unit, with the company using the AFTS since their ‘Running Out Of Fingers’ launch in 2019. These systems will be pivotal for the development of future launch capabilities as the demands on launch windows and the number of launches increase. With AFTS being mandated on US-based defence launches from 2025, the commercial industry is sure to follow. However, as a NASA-based product, it is subject to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). The collaboration between Gilmour and SENER has the potential to support launch providers who would not have access to the NASA product. 

According to Gilmour, the collaboration with SENER aims to successfully develop and demonstrate equivalence to current land-based systems in terms of performance and reliability. This in turn will allow launch service providers and government launch organisations the ability to replace legacy systems that rely on costly land facilities and require manual operator intervention to terminate the mission. 

SENER believes the AFTS will bring about a new paradigm in launch vehicle operations by improving both their versatility, by enabling more launches from places other than traditional launch centres; and their efficiency, by lowering the cost of operations.  

SENER have also developed the NAVIGA modular space navigation unit which will be used onboard the VEGA-C launch vehicle developed by Italian space propulsion company, AVIO. It is this experience that SENER will be leveraging with Gilmour. NAVIGA is a mission-critical system that combines equally two key elements for future space transport systems: cost reduction, by allowing for mass production, and versatility, thanks to the modular and flexible design, which allows a complete and certified unit to be adapted with minor modifications and testing to other environments.  

Working with International Partners

The AVIO VEGA-C Launch Vehicle. Credit: AVIO.

In the words of Augusto Caramagno, Director of Institutional Programs at SENER Aeroespacial: "This new contract reinforces our position as a leader in a growing market in Europe, that of medium-cost space systems that offer good performance and high reliability. The AFTS is also joining our portfolio of highly critical onboard systems within the PNT (Positioning, Navigation and Timing) strategic line, where SENER Aeroespacial has considerable experience and has achieved a competitive advantage." 

It is these kinds of systems that will open up launch slot availability, one of the biggest bottlenecks to launch services. By removing the human in the loop and the ground services, such as radar, telemetry receivers and antennas, associated with human-centred monitoring systems, there will be lower barriers to entry. It also means that it could be possible to launch from a location other than a dedicated launch facility. This will mean lower costs associated with launch and quicker turnaround times, still with the highest levels of safety.   

For Gilmour Space, this international collaboration is another example of its growing focus on European markets. Said Adam Gilmour, CEO of Gilmour Space: “It’s great to be working with SENER Aeroespacial, an established space company with a strong track record for delivering high-performance systems. Given the progress, we’re confident that we will have a robust AFTS ready for our first Eris rocket launch in the second half of 2022.”