- Laurence Russell
PLD Space completes a successful rocket full mission test for the first time in Europe
PLD Space, the Spanish company that leads the space launch business for small satellites in Europe, has successfully completed the first qualification campaign of its suborbital vehicle, MIURA 1. The company is once again making history by performing for the first time in Europe a full mission test of an integrated microlauncher. After undergoing all the tests at its technical facilities in Teruel (Spain), the rocket is ready for its first launch, scheduled for the end of 2022 from El Arenosillo (Huelva, Spain).
This qualification campaign consists of a series of tests in order to ensure that all of the rocket's subsystems are working properly. Finally, a complete combined test is performed to verify that the vehicle is ready for flight.
Although PLD Space had already tested and validated each of the subsystems that configure the launch vehicle, it had not yet tested all of them integrated. This has been a definitive test for further progress on the planned MIURA 1 program.
Specifically, this campaign consisted of several wet tests and three hot tests: 5, 20 and 110 (reduced from 122 to 110 to ensure safe engine shutdown, allowing for fuel margin on board). The last one, known as full mission test, is key to the future of the vehicle because it simulates all the conditions of a real launch, only without actually flying. "We make the rocket truly think it's on its way to space," says PLD Space Co-founder, CEO and Launch Director Raúl Torres.
This 110-second test corresponds to the time of the ignition in an actual launch. Its main purpose is to check the correct operation of all subsystems during a simulated flight. With the information obtained in the different tests, the PLD Space team has been able to verify that each part of the rocket is working as planned or, if not, to take advantage of this data to optimize all the parameters of the first flight unit.
The MIURA 1 qualification campaign has been successful because no critical subsystem has failed. "We have collected a list of small modifications that require programmatic management, such as changing a component or updating some design that we need to improve; but nothing critical," Torres assures. "With each test, we manage to evolve and improve the flight rocket.”
For example, this is the kind of lesson learned after aborting just six seconds into the test that was about to take place on 19th July. The team detected an anomaly in the pressurization of the oxygen tank and, although everything was ready for ignition, opted to cancel the test manually. During the analysis performed, PLD Space had the opportunity to obtain new information from the software and the pad that has already been applied both in the last test and in the flight unit that will be launched at the end of the year.
Committed and reliable team
The positive outcome of these tests is the result of PLD Space's many years of hard work. Both the engineering team, which has designed how to get to this point, and the operations team, which is responsible for manufacturing and integrating the rocket, have been essential to reach this milestone. "In Teruel there are about 15 of us carrying out the test, but we're standing up for the more than 115 people who make up PLD Space. This milestone is everyone's milestone," Torres acknowledges.
At the business level, the success of this qualification campaign also represents a very important value milestone for the company. "We are achieving very high levels of quality and certainty. Every time the team plans a complex operation, it executes it on time and on budget. This is something our customers will value in the future. If it had been a flight operation, the rocket would have taken off on time without causing delays," says Co-founder and Business Development Director Raúl Verdú.
The first in Spain and Europe
This test campaign is not only a milestone for PLD Space, but also for Spain and Europe. On the one hand, it is the first time that a full mission test of an integrated launcher has been carried out. "We are the first private company in the history of Europe to have achieved this," highlights PLD Space Executive President Ezequiel Sánchez.
On the other hand, this success of a Spanish player helps to place Europe in a "position of strength" in the global space business. "We have demonstrated that PLD Space is the most promising company to improve European competitiveness in the microlaunchers race to space" Sánchez explains. "This fact makes our project strategic not only for Spain but with a European perspective and a reference to show the profitability of reinforcing investment in new players."
Next steps for MIURA 1 and MIURA 5
PLD Space's progress follows the planned technical schedule. The launch team will now analyze all the data obtained from the qualification campaign and check what changes need to be incorporated into the MIURA 1 flight unit.
Simultaneously, the operations team has already started the manufacturing of the launch unit, which will fly from El Arenosillo (Huelva) at the end of 2022. This vehicle, which will incorporate the lessons learned during the fire tests, will be completed in October. After undergoing some final tests at the company's own test bench at Teruel Airport, it will be sent to Huelva for its maiden flight.
At the same time, PLD Space's engineering team is already working on the final design of its orbital vehicle, MIURA 5, taking advantage of the information gathered in this MIURA 1 test campaign. The objective is to launch the first unit in mid-2024 from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.