Company Spotlight: Gravitilab Aerospace Services
Facilitating access to space is not easy, nonetheless humankind have persisted in exploring beyond Earth for many different reasons. The space age began with Sputnik, the first ever satellite sent into orbit by the Soviet Union back in 1957. Since then, we have learnt a lot including the main properties (high radiation and a vacuum) which make the atmosphere beyond Earth’s stratosphere uninhabitable to humankind. Another property though non-fatal is microgravity. Microgravity is where only very small gravitational forces are experienced, or in a broader sense of the word, the condition of weightlessness. This property of the space environment not only permits us to float weightlessly aboard the International Space Station (ISS), but also permits scientific processes to be researched unincumbered by Earth’s gravitational force. There are several techniques for simulating microgravity on Earth, all with varying benefits for research and scientific purposes:
- Parabolic flights (Zero-G flight)
- Sounding balloons, also known as weather balloons
- Sounding rockets
- Drop towers
- Random positioning machines (RPM)
UK company, Gravitilab are one such company that simulate microgravity in Earth’s atmosphere. Their flagship services are sounding rockets, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) drop pods (soon to be commercially launched). They develop their services for differing payloads, exposure times to radiation and microgravity, as well as a variety of conditions (such as temperature changes and vibration levels).
ISAAC the first iteration of the Suborbital Rocket solution. Image credit: Gravitilab
LOUIS an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) drop pod solution. Image credit: Gravitilab
Gavitilab’s range of products and services have a unique naming system. Their names help recognise and contextualise, whilst keeping their product range memorable and friendly too. Brian explains how he enjoys the naming process:
“We all sit down and it’s not just one person who comes up with the idea, we all recommend someone. Basically, any pillar of the scientific community. Real standout people that have made a significant contribution, it’s recognising their contribution within the scientific and engineering communities.”
In associating their products with members of the scientific and engineering communities, Gravitilab honours and celebrates each scientist’s development. Below is the list of their growing fleet, paying homage to key figures of the scientific community.
Gravitilab’s Named Services. Image credit: Gravitilab. View in full size >>
Gaining access to space has progressively been made easier through an increase in commercial launch capability by companies like Elon Musk’s Space X. However, the cost of accessing space remains high for early startups, research institutions and SME’s. This is one of the barriers to entry that Gravitilab solves through providing access to space that is the Kármán line, all at a lower cost than that of the ISS. Gravitilab emphasises that they aim to democratise access to these specialist environments. Technical Service Director Brian Zielinski-Smith explains how there are still limited options for accessing the ISS, which tend to be “hugely expensive and feature massive weight times”. Alternate affordable options such as drop towers include lengthy waiting lists, and only brief moments of microgravity. Brian highlights that through providing their services in sounding rockets and UAV drop pods (which can be relocated around the county), Gravitilab offer an affordable UK option for microgravity testing. This also offers higher frequency of launch and longer durations of microgravity, in this way Gravitilab revolutionise access to microgravity environments for both businesses and research organisations alike.
To understand the significance of microgravity it’s crucial to ask, why would a business or research organisation want access to microgravity? Brian’s analogy “Gravity is noise” succinctly describes how Earth’s gravitation force can disrupt scientific processes, including those that take place during manufacturing processes. Brian explains that “Because gravity is always present it makes things difficult to test. Noise caused by gravity essentially clouds research, whereby the main attributes either transform or reveal a scientific effect relative to Earth. What we do is remove that noise to make things a lot clearer.” Brian adds that “…It’s not just the research the space industry needs to level up its hardware testing too. Ideally, we need to mirror how the automotive sector addresses hardware testing, through testing the ‘whole system’ rather than a ‘system as a whole’. At Gravitilab we provide testing services helping companies firstly test their hardware, elevating them from Technology Readiness Level (TRL) 4 or 5 to 7, to ready for orbital missions at TRL 8 or 9. Secondly, we also provide flight heritage for hardware migrating from civil use to space use.”
Over years aboard the ISS studies have shown the potential for microgravity environments. This includes expediated silicon growth rates, larger and more well-ordered semiconductor crystal growth, successful 3D bio fabrication (that is building human tissue through additive manufacturing) and near perfect unreplicable fibre optic cable manufacturing. Brian points to the synergistic environment that stratospheric access offers us, including the sterile nature of space and radiation exposure for uncontaminated scientific testing. Here he provides the example of developing more resistant strains of seeds with better resilience from both frost and low temperatures; ultimately exhibiting a higher yield. As a result of their accessible services, Gravitilab is well positioned to support the development of these industries. Through facilitation of both the testing and validation phases, Gravitilab de-risk potential failures in product development without incurring the significant financial risk of space platform testing first.
Gravitilab ensures sustainability is regarded with the utmost significance. Rather than focusing on in-space sustainability; Gravitilab focuses on the environmental impact on Earth. Their solutions include reusable sounding rockets, recyclable materials, and green solutions for fuel. In addition to their solid fuels which are seventy five percent less polluting than traditional liquid propellants, Gavitilab are set to implement their research into the use of beeswax as an alternative to petroleum propellant. In this endeavour, Brian remarks that they will be able to cut carbon emissions while also supporting local bee populations. A vital pollinating part of our ecosystem.
Gravitilab’s Team. Image credit: Gravitilab
Microgravity stands to be the key environment for future scientific breakthroughs. Brian and the team at Gravitilab are extremely passionate about facilitating suborbital and microgravity access both domestically and abroad. Microgravity’s unique effect on materials has the potential to both innovate current technology and positively impact humankind through technological and medical breakthroughs. As Gravitilab’s services webpage states “The opportunity to operate in microgravity could be as meaningful as the switch from analogue to digital”.