Smooth ride at 300km/h

Serious shocks need serious shock absorption, in space as well as on the ground. Now high-performance racing cars are driving more smoothly on space-ready rubber from ESA spacecraft.

Toulon-based French company SMAC specialises in finely tuned rubber formulations that cushion sensitive machinery everywhere, from space to the racetrack.

“They’re very high-damping materials,” says CEO Philippe Robert. “They have been used in everything from space missions to aeronautics and even auto racing.”

In space, special SMAC materials are used to reduce pyrotechnic shocks – basically, the explosions that jolt a satellite when it’s launched atop a rocket or when explosive couplings release.

"When you have pyro-bolts or any pyrotechnic device, they create a lot of energy in a very short time,” Philippe says. “Engineers are concerned you could break sensitive items with a high-frequency shock.”

Another way the special materials are used in orbit is to eliminate the tiny vibrations caused by a satellite’s moving parts. Such vibrations might throw off the measurements of a sensitive device or result in blurry images of the cosmos.

“If you have very high-accuracy cameras, you don’t want them disturbed by the vibrations from electric motors,” Philippe says.

ESA has worked with SMAC to develop damping technology for the Agency’s Expert reentry test craft and the solar array of the Automated Transfer Vehicle responsible for resupplying the International Space Station.

“Expert used the anti-vibration mounts or dampers on three different sets of equipment: the inertial measurement unit, the power control and distribution unit, and the beacon,” notes Anthony Thirkettle, Expert Principal Mechanical Engineer in ESA.

“They reduce the mechanical loads coming from the launcher to levels that the equipment was designed and qualified for.”

Space expertise improves car performance

Based on the knowhow from developing Smactane certified by ESA for use in space, the company has produced other rubber materials for non-space applications.

Smacbump is being used to rocket Formula 1 cars along the world’s racetracks. The exact composition of both types, Philippe says, is proprietary.

The 650 kg high-performance machines sometimes drive 800 km in a race weekend, exceeding 300 km/h. The high stresses and speeds also make them ideal testbeds for any high technology, including the materials developed by SMAC.

“With our rubber parts, they get better performance and better tuning,” Philippe says. “It’s costly, but it appears it is a very important part in terms of the handling of the car.”

Matt Hill, the rig test manager at Caterham F1 Team, says his team cuts and shapes pieces of Smacbump rubber to make ‘bump stops’ for the cars’ suspensions: “It’s difficult to find a regular rubber which is so good in terms of durability and also has the curves and shapes we need. The Smacbump rubber stiffness can be tuned to suit the suspension of the car.”

While a normal road car might use bump stops just to make sure the suspension doesn’t bottom out over a particularly nasty jolt, on Formula 1 cars Smacbump’s performance lets it become part of the suspension itself.

“The suspension system is made up of many complex components, all designed to work together to produce maximum mechanical grip from the tyres available,” he says.

“Even at 300 km/h, the car will be sitting on Smacbump rubber. It’s an integral part of the system.”

ESA-work opened new businesses

“The collaboration with ESA allowed SMAC to improve their production process and develop a new range of damping technology products,” explains Claude-Emmanuel Serre, Project Manager at Tech2Market, the French broker in ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme supporting spin-off from ESA space programmes.

“And the ESA qualification of Smactane gave the company a good opportunity to develop the business and convince new clients for non-space applications.”

SMAC’s development of the space-qualified Smactane has today resulted in products for vibration damping in aeronautics, industrial production, structures and high-performance cars.

ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme Office (TTPO)

The main mission of ESA's Technology Transfer Programme is to facilitate the use of space technology and systems for non-space applications, demonstrating the benefit of the European space programmes to the citizens.

TTPO is responsible for defining the overall approach and strategy for the transfer of space technologies and systems, including the incubation of start-up companies at ESA’s seven Business Incubation Centres in the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, the UK and Belgium.

TTPO has initiated as a limited partner the Open Sky Technology Fund, a €100 million venture fund that invests in start-ups using space technology.

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