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blog | Win the New Space Race with Motors You Can Rely On |
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2 minute read
Small Satellites

On July 30, 1955, the United States announced its determination to launch satellites into space for the 1957–1958 International Geophysical Year. Four days later, the Soviet Union announced that it, too, would soon be launching satellites. The “space race” was on, and for decades the world followed each new launch in fascination.

Today, another space race is happening with far less fanfare. NASA describes low Earth orbit (LEO) as a commercial economy, full of opportunities for governmental, academic and especially for-profit enterprises.

About 7,500 satellites are already in LEO, and that number will literally skyrocket over the next 10 years and beyond. A report by the United States Government Accountability Office predicts the launch of 58,000 additional satellites by 2030, with the pace of launches growing substantially year over year. Launches as large as 40–60 satellites on a single rocket are already common, and in January, 2021, a SpaceX rocket carried an astonishing payload of 143.

Pioneering opportunities, timeless business principles

Most of the growth in the LEO commercial economy is driven by large constellations of satellites working in global networks to provide communications, internet access, Earth observation, weather monitoring, global positioning and other services. Many new applications will certainly emerge. For example, with so much LEO activity, will a new breed of garbage-collector satellites be needed to remove dangerous debris?

Companies like Amazon, Planet, OneWeb, SpaceX, Lockheed Martin, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and L3Harris are currently leading the way, but the field is wide open for innovators to create new opportunities that promise to revolutionize everything from agriculture to disaster response, from remote healthcare to global security and beyond. As with any commercial venture, success in space depends on applying basic, age-old business principles — including the need to maximize value while minimizing cost.

Motors designed for the rigors of space and the realities of the marketplace

For the motors that control robotic joints and actuators, cryogenic cooling systems, reaction wheels, antennas, solar panels, gyroscopes and other functions, satellite designers must find opportunities to reduce non-recurring engineering costs and lead times — without compromising on performance.

Motors must be available quickly in the required quantities, yet they must deliver all the quality and reliability needed for dependable operation over the 3–5 years that LEO satellites typically remain in service. In addition to fitting the application and performing to specification, motors must be able to withstand the rigors of space flight.

Shock and vibration. Payloads can undergo extreme shock and vibration due to the stresses of rocket launch and flight. Motors need to reliably withstand these forces with no compromise to their performance once the satellite has been placed in orbit.

Kollmorgen offers several LEO-worthy solutions incorporating our KBM, TBM, RBE and other frameless servo motor platforms — all designed to perform under the most extreme conditions and in applications where failure is not an option. Thousands upon thousands of these motors are proving their reliability every day in extreme high-shock, high-vibration environments — on land, under the sea and, of course, in space.

Extremes of temperature. As a spacecraft travels from sunlight into the Earth’s shadow, temperatures can vary from +125ºC to –65ºC. In addition, the lack of atmosphere means there’s no convective cooling in space, so temperatures within the satellite — including heat generated by motors and electronics — must be managed through thermal radiation, often with the support of an active system such as a cryocooler or pumped fluid loop to transfer heat to and from the radiators.

Motors must be able to withstand the thermal shock of continuous, extreme temperature cycling. And they must not add to the overall thermal management challenge due to excessive winding temperature rise. Kollmorgen has developed material recipes that provide an extended ambient temperature range for our standard electromagnetic designs, enabling modified versions of our standard motors to perform reliably despite the temperature extremes encountered in space. And using highly efficient electromagnetics, Kollmorgen motors can deliver all the necessary performance at a relatively low temperature rise, with no need to specify a larger and heavier motor.

Radiation. Ionized particles and electromagnetic radiation from solar events and galactic cosmic rays can be energetic enough to penetrate the exterior of satellites and damage materials within. For motors, radiation can degrade conventional materials used for electrical insulation and the winding encapsulation that helps regulate heat and protect against shock.

Kollmorgen has the ability to make several modifications to many of its standard motor designs to meet the reliability and lifecycle requirements of LEO satellites. These include proprietary, radiation-resistant insulation and encapsulation materials.

Outgassing. Nonmetallic materials can outgas in the vacuum and solar heat of space. These volatile compounds can condense as contaminants on lenses, mirrors, sensors and other surfaces critical to the satellite’s function. Examples of materials that perform poorly in space include polyesters, Teflon, vinyl, nylon, silicone, natural rubber, butyl rubber, polystyrene and polyethylene, among others.

Many of these materials are found in motors designed for terrestrial applications, such as the polyesters used in common winding varnishes. However, Kollmorgen can modify many of its standard motors with specialized materials and proprietary fabrication processes to address the requirements of vacuum environments, including meeting the NASA-STD-6016A outgassing standard of ≤0.1 percent collected volatile condensable materials (CVCM).

Size and weight. Formerly the domain of governmental space agencies and long-established industry giants, LEO space is no longer the frontier of popular imagination. It’s a marketplace open to innovators and entrepreneurs of all kinds. This is especially evident in the development of highly specialized minisatellites (100–500 kg), microsatellites (10–100 kg), nanosatellites (1–10 kg) and even smaller picosatellites — all made possible by the increasing miniaturization of components that deliver ever-greater performance at lower cost.

Size and weight have always mattered for items launched into space, but when a single rocket can now carry well over 100 satellites, space-worthy motors that deliver maximum performance in the lightest, most compact package are extremely valuable. Kollmorgen offers frameless servo motors with leading power and torque density in a wide range of standard sizes, ideally suited to minimize size and weight while maximizing performance in satellites of any class.

Let’s explore

Kollmorgen has been supplying motors for high-profile space applications since the Gemini missions of the mid 1960s, continuing through the moon landings, Space Shuttle, multiple Mars rovers and several other programs. And we can apply that same expertise to supplying the high-volume, space-worthy motors that are needed to accommodate the exponential growth in the LEO commercial economy.

Our capabilities to help you engineer innovative, successful LEO satellites go far beyond what we can describe in a blog post. So contact us anytime at your convenience. We’re ready to talk about your specific requirements, engineer-to-engineer, and help put your satellite on the launch pad

Consult an Expert

Motors for Space

Learn about Kollmorgen motors for a range of space applications including low Earth orbit satellites, space vehicles and satellite ground stations.
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TBM Series Frameless

Our TBM series provides direct drive frameless motors designed to be directly embedded in the mechanical structure of your systems, minimizing weight, size and inertia without sacrificing performance.

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Engineer the Exceptional

Learn how to engineer exceptional machines, robots and vehicles with the highest-performing, most reliable motors, drives, automation solutions and more.

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