Airbus Defence and Space

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Aquitaine: space is in their blood

Built in the 1960s, the Airbus Defence and Space Aquitaine site is located near Bordeaux in the south-west of France. 1,100 people work there in fields ranging from assembly of subassemblies, to high-performance filament-wound and woven structures, thermal protection, atmospheric re-entry systems and complex testing. Let’s take a tour…

When you leave Bordeaux-Mérignac airport and head off in the direction of the Aquitaine site, it already feels well off the beaten track: take the beach road, turn left and head off into the forest of oaks, acacias and pines. It’s hard to believe, but it's right here in the heart of a hundred acres, half of them wooded, that lie 70,000m² of workshops and offices. At the visitors’ entrance, you will need some convincing ID, because this is one of the company’s few sites to manufacture key components of the M51 ballistic missile, such as the filament-wound first and second stage booster bodies.

The Airbus Defence and Space Aquitaine site – 70 000m² of workshops and office space set in 100 hectares of pine forest.

A world of composites and technical excellence

This site is home to two of the most sophisticated carbon fibre winding machines in Europe: Titan and Saturne. They can be used to produce structures of up to 5.5 metres in diameter and 12 metres long, (equivalent to half of an Ariane 5 solid rocket booster). Once they have been filament-wound, these structures are transferred to two immense ovens for curing. They will only be delivered to customers once they have undergone numerous finishing and inspection operations.

Other more modestly sized structures are also produced by winding carbon fibres, such as high-pressure gas storage tanks. When filled with helium or xenon at very high pressure, they are used for space vehicle propulsion systems, in particular for satellite in-orbit station acquisition or for pressurisation of ATV or Ariane 5 fuel circuits.

Adjoining these activities are the immense integration halls for the M51 subassemblies (equipment bay, skirts, etc.), along with the 3D carbon weaving machines, originally derived from machines used in the textile industry, which are used to manufacture the re-entry bodies. However, defence classification means that few visitors are given access to this high-security area.

Let’s now move on to the cabling building, which has just undergone a major overhaul. The ‘ORACLE’ project aimed to enhance manufacturing output by extending the building and reorganising the workstations and production areas for improved control and logistics. Highly-skilled personnel are primarily focused on producing the cabling for the M51 and Ariane 5 stages, with a precision that has to be admired.

Not far from here, another workshop produces thermal protection materials such as Prosial, Aerocoat, Aleastrasil, Norcoat Liège and AQ60. All were developed, including application thereof, in Aquitaine, to provide thermal protection for space vehicles. Some are ultra-lightweight, complex in shape and produced by spraying consecutive coats, such as Prosial which is applied to numerous parts of the M51 or Ariane 5, equating to nearly three tonnes per launcher – distributed between the solid rocket boosters and the main cryogenic stage. Other materials, such as Aleastrasil and AQ60, are also part of the range. The first was used for the heat shield for the European ARD atmospheric re-entry demonstrator, while of particular note AQ60 was applied to the heat shield of the Huygens probe which landed on Titan in January 2005. Finally, Norcoat Liège, used on the Beagle2 heat shield, is today one of the heat protection materials most extensively used on the M51 missile.

Assurance through testing

High-performance structures, thermal protection and atmospheric re-entry systems, hardened cabling, etc. – all designed and produced by specialist engineers and technicians for reliability and performance to the max for the duration of their lifetime. This is why, in addition to a materials and process characterisation and qualification lab, the site houses a large number of test and inspection facilities, some of which offer quite outstanding capabilities.

The site has an immense pit some ten metres deep used for failure testing of the M51 booster bodies during the qualification phase. Another facility, called SIMOUN, is used to simulate the aero and thermodynamic stresses involved in re-entry on Earth, but also on Mars, by artificially creating the dust in its atmosphere.

But, now for the epitome of non-destructive testing: functioning rather like a medical lab it contains ultrasound pools, designed to detect the slightest delamination and Europe’s largest X-ray tomograph which is like a gigantic scanner and is used for checking composite structures. On another test bench internal pressure tests are carried out on all the filament-wound structures for the M51 prior to delivery. And last but not least, there is the dynamic testing which, to a large extent through the use of shakers, proves that the structures will be capable of enduring all sorts of vibrations, during both transportation and flight.

Concept, design and project management

To complete the tour, let’s now visit the buildings which are home to the programme teams. The Ariane 5 solid rocket booster programme is run from Aquitaine, with each booster delivering 600 tonnes of thrust to lift the launcher off its pad. But it is the M51 programme which forms the heart and soul of the Aquitaine site. Numerous teams work on managing the production phase, on designing and modifying the ground support infrastructures and on assuring operational readiness of the system at the Brest naval base.

The modern-looking engineering building, covering more than 4400m², was inaugurated at the end of 2005. Its design was centred round the ’real-time engineering’ concept, which is based on the use of a computer-aided design tool, and houses all the site's design expertise; some 300 engineers and technicians who work real-time, with full IT-interconnectivity, with other sites on major programmes such as Ariane 5, the M51, future launchers or the space plane.

In the space of just ten years, the site has gradually evolved. A number of ageing buildings have given way to modern structures that consume less energy and are more environmentally friendly, such as the reception area or the new PRIMEVERE testing area, which will soon house three units dedicated to pyrotechnic and special testing. Hundreds of square metres of workshops and offices have been entirely redesigned and reorganised with rationalisation and optimisation of production processes, workflows, costs and quality, but also environmental protection in mind. This is why the Aquitaine site has now introduced an Environmental Management System (EMS) which on a daily basis aims to reduce the environmental impact of its activities that bit more: with a waste and hydrocarbon treatment plant, a building management system, a forestry management plan, a reorganisation of car parks and roads on the site, to name but a few. Clearly the way of the future!

Yann Guillou, Aquitaine site director, says: “These recent investments, in particular the engineering building, were made to enable the site to meet the major challenges of the key programmes of today and tomorrow, whether for future launchers, interplanetary exploration or renewable energies, such as wind turbine blades. I am convinced that all of this will ensure our staff have the means to achieve their objectives and meet the expectations of our customers, as they have always done!”