The Rise of Simulation Software Testing for Space Components and Subsystems

testing equipment

As the space industry expands in size, so too does the market for space component and (sub)system testing. Yet theoretical models can only go so far in anticipating how a satellite, space vehicle, or other component will perform during a mission.

Filling the gap between expected and actual performance is space simulation testing – a growing service industry that mimics the extreme conditions of space. It gives manufacturers a clear understanding of how a product will react to this environment.

The technology has been in use for a while. In the defense sector, for example, live, virtual, and constructive simulations are commonly used to test equipment and assess how it responds to various inputs and environments.

Computer simulation is already a well-established tool utlized during the development and testing of spacecraft and related components, but the software is now going further – anticipating how vehicles, electronics, and other components will stand up under particular external influences. Those known to affect performance include solar radiation, low temperatures, sun exposure, and the effects of internally generated heat from the satellite technology or component that can trigger risky temperature fluctuations. Calculating and optimizing the thermal balance of spacecraft is essential yet challenging without mimicking the exact anticipated conditions it will experience during operation.

Heightened demand

Space simulation software has a critical role to play in this rapidly growing industry. Rising demand and competition in space is ramping up development in simulation software, with more companies entering the market space and offering smart technologies that can simulate space phenomena.

Multi-physics platforms are contributing to this extension of testing abilities. In previous years, simulation software was restricted to refining and carrying out checks during the design phase of projects, but now the industry is applying sensors, machine learning, and the Internet of Things (IoT) to anticipate the entire life of a product and its responses in different environmental conditions. Simulation testing can now be carried out from design to operation, largely eliminating the requirement for costly physical testing and operational forecasting.

The conditions that can be replicated are not only numerous, but also meticulous. From combined environments of altitude, temperature, and humidity, to vacuum chambers, acoustic intensity testing, low background temperatures, and solar exposure – testing software suppliers are increasingly able to inform manufacturers of how their product will stand up to the conditions of space and provide crucial quality assurance down the supply chain.

And early utilization of simulation software means greater savings. According to Paolo Colombo, director of aerospace and defense at Ansys, around 80 per cent of the cost of a product is locked in during the ideation phase. The company is now offering tools that are capable of real-time simulation, which he says encourages innovation and experimentation. Digital twins are also available – a 3D virtual representation of a component, assembly or system that uses sensors, networks, and IoT devices to connect to its real-world counterpart. This provides information that enable engineers to tweak future designs at a cost that is significantly lower and much easier than physically retrofitting an engine with sensors.

This technology enables OEMs and project leads to justify proceeding with system development for space applications.

Current limitations

There has been concern from some corners over the accuracy of simulation testing, given that results determine whether or not teams proceed with the systems being tested. Any inaccuracy, however minor, could result in the advancement of systems that are ineffective or unreliable.

The nature of simulation testing also means that systems and components are typically tested before substantial operational experience can occur – usually at the developmental stage. Margin for error exists when systems rely on information collected from similar systems. Limitations are apparent in the ability of a test to detect potential unanticipated failures – those that are exclusive to operational experience. The solution, therefore, is to establish simulation testing environments that mimic as closely as possible the operational environment – something that is becoming more viable as the technology used evolves. This will prevent any lack of realism proving detrimental to system evaluation.

This issue is, however, gradually subsiding as technology becomes ever more advanced and capable. More pressing issues include the training of engineers, whose knowledge of advanced software and ability needs to align with technological developments. The talent gap that is pervasive across much of the space industry will no doubt have consequences here, too.

Despite the hurdles, the industry is heightening its use of modeling and simulation, which in some areas is already substantial.

Better understanding of performance and weaknesses and the reduction in both short- and long-term costs are significant advantages of simulation testing over other models – benefits that are proving compelling in this modern-day space race.