Airbus Defence and Space

Exploring the universe Press releases

670kg structure completed for the capture of a billion celestial objects



  • Vital structural elements have been built for the future Gaia mission


Toulouse, 30 September 2009 - Airbus Defence and Space has validated one of the major technological challenges for the Gaia astronomy mission - the structural frame for the satellite's instrumentation. Without this frame, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) mission to provide scientists with the means for detecting, cataloguing and determining the position of a billion celestial objects, (including stars in the Milky Way, neighboring galaxies, and meteorites from our solar system) with unequalled accuracy would prove to be impossible.

The structural frame, which is the only one of its kind in the world, was created by brazing 17 separate silicon carbide segments together. The work was a cooperative effort between Airbus Defence and Space and Boostec. Airbus Defence and Space, the prime contractor for the Gaia mission, designed the frame, whilst Boostec, a specialist in silicon carbide structures, was responsible for its construction.


The 3-meter diameter frame will provide mechanical support and stability for all the satellite’s components. These include two telescopes and a 200-kg focal plane, weighing a total of 670 kg. Boostec performed the machining and sintering of the segments, before they were brazed together in the large-diameter furnace first developed to cast the primary mirror for the Herschel space observatory.

Gaia’s structural frame was made from silicon carbide to ensure that it provides the satellite’s optical systems with the high level of stability they require. Gaia’s mirrors will also be made from silicon carbide. Airbus Defence and Space introduced this ceramic compound for space applications years ago, and has been developing its optimal usage ever since. Silicon carbide offers excellent rigidity and stability, with a high level of thermal conductivity and a low coefficient of thermal expansion, which means it is well suited to the extremes of space.

The Gaia programme is a key scientific mission for ESA and will be essential for developing our understanding of the makeup of the stars, and ultimately the formation and composition of our galaxy.


Through Gaia, it will be possible to determine the location of 15-magnitude stars down to an accuracy of 10 to 25 millionths of a second of arc. This is equivalent to an observer in Toulouse being able to measure the thickness of a hair in Paris, or spot a one euro coin on the surface of the Moon.


After several feasibility and technical pre-development studies were performed, Airbus Defence and Space was named the prime contractor for the mission in 2006. The programme is now going through the manufacturing, assembly and test phase. Airbus Defence and Space in the UK is responsible for developing the Video Processing unit, as well as validating the onboard software and the active antenna. The Airbus Defence and Space teams in Friedrichshafen, Germany, are responsible for the propulsion and thermal systems, while in Spain, the Barajas centre in Madrid, has recently delivered the carbon structure of the satellite.

Airbus Defence and Space is also responsible for the design and development of the satellite's onboard optical instrumentation.


Airbus Defence and Space, a wholly owned subsidiary of AIRBUS Group, is dedicated to providing civil and defence space systems and services. In 2008, Airbus Defence and Space had a turnover of €4.3 billion and more than 15,000 employees in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain and the Netherlands. Its three main areas of activity are Airbus Defence and Space Transportation for launchers and orbital infrastructure, Airbus Defence and Space for spacecraft and ground segment and Airbus Defence and Space for the development and delivery of satellite services.

AIRBUS Group is a global leader in aerospace, defence and related services. In 2008, AIRBUS Group generated revenues of €43.3 billion and employed a workforce of more than 118, 000.


Press contacts:

Daniel Mosely (Airbus Defence and Space UK)                                                      Tel.: +44 (0)1 438 77 8180

Matthieu Duvelleroy (Airbus Defence and Space FR)                                              Tel.: +33 (0) 1 77 75 80 32

Ralph Heinrich (Airbus Defence and Space GER)                                                   Tel.: +49 (0) 89 607 33971

Francisco Lechón (Airbus Defence and Space SP)                                                 Tel.: +34 91 586 37 41

SatelliteSpace Exploration