Air Force Research Laboratory open new space lab

The Air Force Research Laboratory officially opened a new laboratory Oct. 29, one that will focus on developing materials for new deployable space structures.

Construction on the Deployable Structures Laboratory, or DeSel, began in Dec. 2019. Scientists and engineers moving into the $4 million lab at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, will continue the work of the Spacecraft Component Technology Center of Excellence, which has a history of developing spacecraft structure materials.

Not only will Navigation Technology Satellite-3 demonstrate technologies for future GPS satellites, it will actually augment the current GPS fleet while on orbit. (L3Harris image)

DeSel contains specialized equipment and a climate-controlled, vibration isolated laboratory capable of testing spacecraft structures up to 20 meters x 15 meters, allowing AFRL to further research and develop high-strain composite materials.

“I’m excited to have a facility that was specifically built for testing novel deployable space structures,” said Benjamin Urioste, research engineer and lead for the Integrated Structural Systems team, in a statement. “With the push toward hybrid architecture and smaller satellites, high packing efficiency structures and the ability to bring large satellite capability to small satellites is more important than ever.”

“This new class of high strain composite enabled structures requires new ground test facilities,” said Urioste. “Satellite deployments are nerve-wracking, one-shot endeavors and the high-fidelity ground testing that will take place in the DeSel is critical to ensuring on-orbit success.”

“The structures made possible by high strain composites will enable new mission paradigms for the U.S. Space Force,” added Spacecraft Technologies Division Chief Mark Roverse. “AFRL has led development of high strain composites for deployed spacecraft structures, and we are excited to see the new mission capabilities that are being enabled.”

One spacecraft in development that will benefit from these new structures is AFRL’s Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstration and Research (SSPIDR) project. With SSPIDR, AFRL wants to build a spacecraft capable of collecting solar energy on orbit and then transmitting that energy down to forward operating bases via radio frequency. Northrop Grumman has been awarded a $100 million contract to support space-based experiments informing SSPIDR’s development.

The Space Force is testing that technology on the X-37B, the service’s secretive space plane, but DeSel’s work will provide the materials needed to actually build the spacecraft.

“This innovative research will help us to deliver the essential energy our warfighters need at the right place at the right time,” explained Col. Eric Felt, director of the AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate. “Some of the first structures that we look forward to testing in this new lab are those required for our Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstration and Research (SSPIDR) project, one of our top priority programs.”

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