Space in short supply: “We are going after the automobile, telephony or game consoles”

While cars or game consoles are suffering the full brunt of a shortage of components due to the health crisis, the space sector, more discreet, is also suffering.

For now, we can do with it, but it might not last. Thomas Torloting, head of the components quality department at CNES, is worried about the current crisis in the space sector.

Like other space agencies in the world, the National Center for Space Studies is experiencing some minor supply concerns for the construction of its future satellites.

Deadlines multiplied by four

The Covid-19 pandemic has accentuated a crisis among materials manufacturers, already at work for several years. The ever greater need for computer equipment demands more raw materials, in particular ceramic used for capacitors, or silicon present in electronic chips. A difficulty known for a long time, with ups and downs, but which is experiencing a vertiginous peak as all the confined teleworkers flock to computer equipment. ” Since 2018 already there were supply problems, confides Thomas Torloting, especially on capacitors, but it’s getting worse. “

Concretely, the professionals of the sector call upon suppliers who supply them with products of this type, very specialized materials, which are often built expressly for these technologies. In space, for example, parts must resist changes in temperature, pressure, hostile vacuum conditions, and survive long enough to function properly throughout the mission.

It is these specificities that often lead to rather long delays, of the order of three to four months. These delays have exploded with the shortage: now the CNES sometimes has to wait more than a year before being delivered. As a result, these additional lengths are incorporated into the planning which is revised, such as that of JUICE, the ESA mission to Jupiter and its satellites.

Artist’s impression of the JUICE mission. // Source: ESA / ATG Medialab, 2017

Suffice to say that in a sector where the design times are already long enough, the current situation is all the more burdensome. But in addition, space is faced with another problem: it is too small. For Thomas Torloting: “ We go after the automotive sector, telephony or game consoles, because we do not order in large enough quantities. Our production rate is not at all the same and large customers benefit from privileges. “ Concretely, when it comes to going to buy materials, the largest productions have already reserved everything and the few electronic components that the suppliers have managed to bring together for their products. There is nothing left to make satellites!

Find alternatives

So, how do space agencies and companies make up for this lack of components? A first solution would be to store. As the first signs of the shortage had been visible for a few years, it would be logical to think that the professionals would have put aside while waiting for better days. However, this is easier said than done. Storing large quantities of material requires a whole engineering that these companies do not necessarily have: suitable premises, but also a maintenance system, not to mention the risk that the components become obsolete and outdated – which is always problematic when it comes to life. it is about sending scientific missions at the cutting edge of technology.

Detail of a “wafer”, a plate of semiconductor material used in the manufacture of microelectronic components. // Source: Intel

Another solution: alternative markets. No question of mafia here, but only to change suppliers. As the first affected are the Asian suppliers, there is still time to move towards the Americans and the Europeans for the moment more or less spared. The problem here is that these products are more expensive, but moreover not everything is available. For some missions, extremely specific components are required.

With us, it is above all the semiconductors that are lacking, says Bastien Baticle from Venture Orbital. We try as much as possible to find other catalogs where the products are still available, but this inevitably upsets our ways of designing. This Breton company is developing a nano-launcher for CubeSats in particular, but is also forced to adapt to the situation. ” Our advantage, says Bastien Baticle, is that we do not have a very high rate unlike the automotive industry, for example. So the extended deadlines are integrated into the schedules. »Enough to continue the in-depth work and the design phase despite the constraints.

For now, we can still find alternatives, make concessions, specifies Thomas Torloting. But it takes a whole organization. “ An organization that is increasingly difficult to find, since the situation remains very fragile and shows no sign of improvement. Components are set to become more expensive and more difficult to find.

Look at the world from space

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