While space travel continues to be the next big race for tech giants and disruptors across the globe, start-up SuperSharp Limited is looking at how going into space can help us better understand and care for our planet.
Founded in 2017, SuperSharp Limited is an Earth-imaging start-up developing unfolding space telescopes to capture high-resolution thermal infrared (TIR) images of the earth.
INSPIRATION FROM EXTRATERRESTRIAL EXPLORATION
During our time at SuperSharp, we took the chance to speak to President and Chief Scientific Officer, Professor Ian Parry about what inspired this project.
"I started thinking about this a long time ago because I'm an astronomer, and I was interested in the idea of a telescope that could see evidence of life on other planets." Ian explains, "Currently, to do that, you need a huge telescope, something which is 24 metres across and that doesn't fit in a rocket."
It was this that triggered Ian to begin thinking about the concept of unfolding telescopes, allowing them to go into the rocket as small, compact sizes, before unfolding much larger when in orbit. However, this would be a several billion dollar project, so Ian set his sights on a smaller concept, to begin with.
"I had to think about, how do I get to such a point which is so far down the line from where I am now, which is nowhere." States Ian, "So the idea was, let's look at using this technology for earth observation, have smaller versions like this [the prototype] and build the technology up."
UNLOCKING NEW INSIGHTS ABOUT THE WORLD AROUND US WITH THERMAL IMAGERY
The SuperSharp Space Telescope can identify items 6 metres in length from a 450km orbit and produce heat temperature maps of the entire globe.
"Our telescopes capture very high-quality temperature maps of the earth, at a global scale to tackle global challenges." - Marco Gomez-Jenkins, CEO of SuperSharp.
Applications of thermal imagery:
- Detect natural disasters such as wildfires.
- Monitor crop growth and predict droughts to increase crop yield.
- Identify inefficient buildings that require renovation to minimise CO2 emissions and support a country's net-zero ambitions.
FROM CONCEPT TO REALITY WITH SOLIDWORKS
Like all products, it begins with a concept and the belief it can come to life. The next step is finding right the tools and materials to allow exploration and validation.
In 2020, SuperSharp joined our SOLIDWORKS Entrepreneur Programme to design, conceptualise, and validate before moving to physical prototypes; we took the opportunity to speak to their Senior Mechanical Design Engineer, Jon Jennings, to find out why.
"I've used SOLIDWORKS for years, I find it to be a particularly intuitive package good for conceptual design." Explains Jon, "What you're seeing here is the tenth, twentieth iteration of work, you constantly go back and make changes, particularly in a project like this where there are dynamic moving parts. SOLIDWORKS is great because it's quick, especially when trying different ideas."
Using SOLIDWORKS has helped the team produce a viable prototype, having overcome concerns around moving parts that may clash through the use of advanced mates which has supported their ability to carry out dynamic modelling.In addition, the SuperSharp team are also beginning to use the SOLIDWORKS Visualize and Simulation packages to enhance their product development.
"You just couldn't visualise or design something as complex as that [the telescope] without using a CAD package like SOLIDWORKS." - Jon Jennings, Senior Mechanical Design Engineer.
PRECISION IS VITAL
Having a concept is one thing, but making a space-ready product is entirely different. In this case, for the thermal telescopes to work, they require self-alignment technology; SuperSharp has developed patent-pending self-alignment technology that positions the optics to an accuracy level of one-millionth of a metre, or better than one-hundredth of the width of a human hair.
"After unfolding, the telescope needs to align itself because the optics have to be incredibly precisely positioned to get the detailed images we want ." - George Hawker, Chief Technical Officer. "To do this, we use clever metrology techniques that shine light through the system and return it to various sensors, we are then able to use nano-positioning actuators to position the optics to better than a millionth of a metre, or a hundreth the width of a human hair."
SIMULATION, THE KEY TO SUCCESS
In addition to the challenges around alignment, the SuperSharp team must also consider how the mirrors on the telescope will perform under specific pressures and temperatures.
"We're starting to do thermal modelling to work out what the steady-state temperatures of parts of it [the telescope] are and how the radiation and heat flux will travel through it," states Jon.
Using SOLIDWORKS Simulation allows the team to consider how external factors will impact the function of various components within the telescope.
"I'm using SOLIDWORKS Simulation to model how temperatures change across the satellite and the telescope and how they respond to extreme conditions in space. At the moment, I'm doing thermal analysis to see how the radiation and heat fluxes from the sun and other sources of radiation in space affect the telescope and how the temperature gradient changes across it." Explains Ksenjia Belada, who is doing her Engineering Internship with SuperSharp, "The next thing I will consider is how these are combined with the stress analysis -how the different components expand or contract dependant on the temperature and how this affects their functioning."
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD FOR SUPER-SHARP?
"We want to be the go-to company for space telescopes." - Ian Parry.
"We're hoping to have our first launch in 2024, where we'll launch a satellite that looks similar to this [their prototype] that demonstrates the technology and hopefully we can sell space telescopes and start to scale up." - George Hawker.
ADVICE FOR START-UPS & ENTREPRENEURS
"The key to any start-up success is perseverance from the founders, and listening to what the market has to say. You try out different experiments, and you think about different products and solutions but you need validation from the market to understand whether you're on the right track or whether you need to start again with a different solution." - Marco Gomez-Jenkins