Outer space: Denel's final frontier

By Leon Engelbrecht, ITWeb senior writer
Johannesburg, 02 Apr 2008

State-owned arms group Denel has helped the European Space Agency (ESA) usher in a new era in automated space flight using technology developed locally for SA's erstwhile space and ballistic missile programmes.

The ESA's Jules Verne supply vessel is scheduled to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) tomorrow. The Jules Verne automated transfer vehicle (ATV) is the largest and most sophisticated spacecraft ever developed in Europe, says the ESA.

It is also the first spacecraft designed and certified to conduct automated docking in space where tight safety standards apply, it notes. The ESA says the ATV therefore features high accuracy navigation systems and a flight software suite "far more complex than that used on Ariane 5".

The Jules Verne is the size of a double-decker bus and is scheduled to remain attached to the ISS for about six months. It will then undock and be completely disintegrated during a controlled re-entry into the earth's atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. Several tons of ISS waste will be on board.

The ESA plans to re-supply the ISS every 18 months and indications are it will contract Denel to support future missions.

Denel has supported several space missions for Boeing in the past, but this is the first time the French Space Agency, the Center National d' Etides Spatiales (CNES) has contracted the company to assist it and ESA with one of their launches.

Denel's role

Spokesman Sam Basch says Denel subsidiary Overberg Toetsbaan (OTB) played a key role in the 9 March launch by tracking the ATV's final separation from the Ariane launch vehicle in the sky over New Zealand.

It did so by deploying a mobile telemetry centre to New Zealand's South Island and relaying the data in real-time to the CNES/ESA launch control centre in Kourou, French Guyana, in South America.

Final separation is a critical event in the launch sequence and indicates to the control centre that the launch was successful.

"OTB's station therefore played a crucial role in the launch of the most complex spacecraft ever built in Europe," says Basch.

He adds that the elaborate planning for the mission saw OTB deploy its remote telemetry station, consisting of a mobile tracking antenna and its associated equipment, to Invercargill in New Zealand as early as last November.

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