Powering space exploration
By Sarah Cruddas
Sarah Cruddas is an established space journalist, broadcaster and author. She has an academic background in astrophysics and is the face of space on many British and US TV channels. This article follows her visit to Saft’s Poitiers factory, South West of France that has been designing and producing space batteries for more than 50 years now.
You don’t choose your passions; your passions choose you. At the heart of what Saft does is passion. Passion for enabling our pursuit of space, the exploration of which is the greatest thing we will ever do as a species: Helping humans to explore beyond that next “hill” as well as improving life here on Earth.
In the mere 60 years that we, as a species, have been reaching for the stars, for much of that time Saft has quietly, but steadily enabled humans to move into the Space Age. Today in 2017, as the 60th anniversary of the voyage of Sputnik fast approaches, we live in a world defined by space; from the many many satellites that orbit our planet - helping to improve life on Earth, to the fact that we have sent robotic spacecraft to not only every planet in our Solar System, but also to comets, asteroids, moons and other worlds - and even beyond the boundaries of Stellar Space.
For anyone aged 17 or younger, they have not known a time when we have not had humans living and working in space. Just imagine what these young people will grow up to see in their lifetimes. Today, we are looking to send humans back to the Moon, onwards to Mars and create an off-world space economy which will change human life in ways we simply cannot yet imagine. Making this century, the 21st century, the first full century when we, as a species are space-faring.
But one of the unsung heroes of our pursuit of something grander is the batteries that enable space exploration. One of the greatest things about space is the convergence of seemingly unrelated technologies, which enable us to move forward to the stars. Without developments in battery technology we would not be living in the Space Age of today.
It is thanks to Saft batteries that we have made not only great strides in exploration, but have also enabled satellites which look back to Earth, improving life for all of us who live here on Spaceship Earth. After all, one of the biggest achievements of space is looking back at Earth, and using what we learn from space to make life better for all. Saft provides batteries for all satellite applications; from Telecommunications to Low Earth Orbit such as Earth Observations. This technology enables us to live in the world of connectivity and cyber space that we take for granted today, but much of which would not be possible if it were not for Saft.
The breadth of what Saft has enabled continues to Launchers, Pathfinders and Rovers. They are pushing the boundaries of what is possible in space. Among the greatest achievements include inventing lithium-ion battery technology for space. This means lighter batteries which are easier to manage and more efficient, helping to reduce the size of solar panels for instance. This is hugely significant because lighter satellites can also mean lower launch costs, increasing the number of people who will be able to access space and opening up new possibilities from space technology.
And no article about Saft would be right without crediting the man behind this - Dr Yannick Borthomieu - a man who embodies the very passion of Saft, for enabling exploration of space. Yannick has worked on space battery technology for almost 30 years. He has collaborated with all of the world’s space agencies to ensure Saft’s technology is exactly what they need for each mission.
Then there is Rosetta, Europe’s Apollo moment. The technological equivalent of landing a fly on a speeding bullet. After a decade-long journey across our Solar System, Rosetta’s Philae lander made it to the surface of the comet 67P Churyumov–Gerasimenko. But all was not well. Philae bounced and landed in the shadow of a large rock. Its solar panels couldn’t get enough light to work. But thanks to Saft’s primary battery on the Philae lander, we were able to get information back from Philae. Helping scientists to gather more pieces towards the jigsaw puzzle of our Solar System. Information used for beginning to answer questions such as; what are comets made from? How do they form? And the role they played in potentially “seeding” life here on Earth. Truly groundbreaking science, but made possible thanks to Saft’s battery and the dedication of the team in ensuring that “Failure was not an option”.
And then there is the near future of space, including the European Space Agency’s ExoMars mission, for which Saft will provide the batteries. Helping to push Europe forward in its exploration of the Red Planet, a world which may have once harbored life, may still harbor microbial life and will one day be home to human life.
But greater than all of these things is the passion. The passion of those who work at Saft to use their skills to push forward our understanding of the universe. A passion I witnessed this year on my visit to Saft’s Poitiers factory, South West of France. This passion will ensure success for future missions, as well as helping to unravel new mysteries of our universe and our own planet that we cannot even begin to imagine yet.
So this is to the future of space. To the new Space Age we are entering. Our exploration of the cosmos has only just begun. We are all but scratching the surface and I for one look forward to all the wonders of space exploration that Saft batteries will enable in the years to come.