With the departure of the An-124, the last payload fairing produced in Emmen for the American launch vehicle Atlas V made its way to the spaceport in Florida today. Composite structures for the American launchers Atlas V and the new Vulcan Centaur have been produced at RUAG's American site in Decatur, Alabama, since 2017. The Emmen production site will remain the competence center for the European Ariane and VEGA launchers. The payload fairings in composite technology are manufactured there in a 5000 m² production hall in a modern, partially automated process. Thanks to an innovative process, the carbon fiber structures required for the payload fairings can be manufactured without the use of an autoclave. In addition to the Atlas launchers all Ariane rockets launched to date have been flying with payload fairings from RUAG Space since 1979.
For Holger Wentscher, Senior Vice President Product Group Launchers at RUAG Space, the last transport of the payload fairing for the Atlas V also marks the completion of an important project for RUAG Space: "United Launch Alliance (ULA) and RUAG Space have been working together successfully in the Atlas program for more than a decade. By setting up the site in Decatur, we were able to significantly strengthen our strategic partnership with ULA. Local production not only creates customer proximity. At the same time, we are able to further expand our presence in the USA".
Millimetre work despite huge dimensions
With a take-off mass of over 400 tons and a wingspan of 73.30 meters, the Antonov An-124 of the Russian airline Volga-Dnepr is one of the largest transport aircraft in the world and can carry a cargo of up to 120 tons. The payload fairing of the American launch vehicle Atlas V isn’t quite so heavy, but due to its dimensions the cargo hold of the Antonov An-124 is practically filled. "For us, not only the arrival of the aircraft but also the loading of the sensitive cargo was always a special experience," says Jérôme Bonhomme, Project Manager Atlas. Loading the 20m high structure required time-consuming millimeter work: "We need almost the entire loading area to transport our payload fairing. This meant that we had to pay meticulous attention to the space available so that the precious cargo was not damaged. In addition to the right equipment, this required a great deal of skill and sensitivity," continues Jérôme Bonhomme.
The payload fairing and its task
The payload fairing makes up about one third of the total length of a launch vehicle. The fairing is located on the upper part of the rocket and consists of two half-shells made of carbon fiber composites that split in space. It protects the satellites before launch from high temperatures, solar radiation, dust, humidity or rain at the launch site. During the first few minutes of flight, the payload fairing must reliably protect the satellites encapsulated under it from noise, the enormous heat and mechanical loads.