The Syensqo company, comprising the solutions, activities and markets represented in the article below, was spun off from Solvay group in December 2023.
Growing demand is driving the need for lightweight aerospace materials
The number of satellites being put on orbit every year has been growing exponentially over the last decade, driven by humanity’s unprecedented demand for telecommunications, digital connectivity and the detailed observation of our planet’s surface. This has led to a shift in the satellite launching market, where demand is higher than ever and the dominant position of legacy government space agencies has been challenged by new players. It has also heralded completely new practices like the launch of entire constellations of satellites.
Every kilo counts for a satellite launch
In this new landscape, competition between launching companies is getting fierce, triggering the need to launch satellites as efficiently as possible, especially from a cost perspective. And in this equation, weight is a crucial factor. “When your business is sending satellites into space, every kilogram counts,” says Bjorn Ballien, Market Segment Manager for Space & Launch at Solvay’s Composite Materials business unit. “So any way you can reduce the weight of your launcher is worthwhile, for example by replacing metal in the rocket’s design with composite materials.”
Composites can be used in various parts of a satellite launcher: in its ‘nose’ or payload fairing, which protects the satellites being transported, for the rocket’s main body, and in the future for the fuel tanks as well. “They represent a huge mass of material, so weight gain here will be considerable,” adds Bjorn.
In the meantime, a growing market with new players challenging the established ones means new opportunities for composite materials in rockets. “With more and more satellites being launched and more people building launchers, including newcomers and startups, we have an important role to play,” says Bjorn, underlining the fact that Solvay has a strong market position here, particularly in terms of composite materials for payload fairings, but even more so for ablatives, the protective materials used in the nozzles at the bottom of rocket motors, of which we are a leading provider.
More efficient satellite launchers for ride-sharing to space
But in addition to growing, the landscape for satellite launchers is also shifting. So-called ‘ride sharing’, where one rocket carries satellites for multiple customers, is developing along with the increase of satellite constellations, the famous strings of satellites that can sometimes be seen in the night sky. At the same time, smaller players have emerged with ‘point-to-point service’: carrying smaller payloads, they are better suited to position satellites in space more precisely. But only a handful of newcomers have been capable of carrying out successful launches so far, and government space agencies remain big players, not to mention the market-leading success story Space X.
“There are vastly different rocket design philosophies from one company to the next, and lots of variables to consider when selecting materials. We need to help our customers find the right one for their specific needs.”
Bjorn Ballien, Market Segment Manager Space & Launch, Composite Materials, Solvay
Revolutionizing satellite launchers: the future of rockets is reusable
All these changes mean there is a wider than ever range of needs, priorities and philosophies when it comes to building rockets. For example, while some satellite launchers are increasing their use of composite materials, others are continuing to use metal only. “There are vastly different rocket design philosophies from one company to the next, and lots of variables to consider when selecting aerospace materials: in or out-of-autoclave manufacturing, automated layup, level of performance…” details Bjorn. “We have a whole range of products, and we need to help our customers select the right one for their specific needs.”
Some of these aerospace materials are recent innovations, others have been on the market for some time. Whatever the case may be, customers in the satellite launching business are always looking for a unique combination of characteristics that composite materials are able to offer: optimizing weight while retaining the same strength, heat resistance and mechanical performance as metal.
“We’re constantly working on developing new applications with our customers,” says Bjorn, citing a recent change in the market brought about by the concept of reusability, introduced and successfully implemented by Space X. “Traditionally, rockets were designed as one-way, disposable machines,” he continues. “Now we have to work with the idea that aerospace materials are no longer going to go up in space just once.” Reusable rockets made of composites are on the near-term horizon: R&D teams have their work cut out for them to continue to help improve the efficiency of the space industry.