Satellites come in many shapes and sizes, including large, medium, small and nano. The latter are typically put into orbit by deployers on the International Space Station, or launched as secondary payloads on a carrier rocket. Another unique thing about nanosatellites is they tend to stay in low Earth orbit for space observation, interplanetary missions and relaying TV, radio and phone signals back to Earth.

Nanosatellites take less time to develop and build than larger units, but they still need to undergo extensive testing to ensure optimum performance. This typically involves using simulation and complex numerical analysis to verify the satellite’s hardware, software, and navigation and control algorithms.

Argotec is an aerospace engineering company with a division dedicated to designing and assembling nanosatellites, and then testing each component. Among the division’s most notable nanosatellites is the ArgoMoon, the only European one selected by NASA and coordinated by the Italian Space Agency to participate in the Artemis 1 exploration mission, set to launch this November.

The company has also developed the ATENA (Advanced Testing Emulator for Nanosatellite Arm) system, which provides immediate verification and constant monitoring of nanosatellite parameters by means of a robotic arm. Argotec created ATENA in 2018 with the help of robot manufacturer Comau.

A closed-loop system, ATENA consists of a nanosatellite (or part of it), an electronic control unit and a six-axis Racer7 1.4 Comau robot, according to David Avino, managing director at Argotec. After an engineer mounts the nanosatellite to the wrist of the robot, it recreates the movement of the satellite in orbit throughout a mission.

During this movement, all communication system protocols on the satellite are tested, along with the interaction between the system components. The system provides simple visualization and quicker test results, as well as the capability to perform mission-related demos. For example, two or more robots can reproduce in-orbit satellite docking of the nanosatellite.

Avino likes that ATENA allows engineers to monitor the satellite’s functionality and directly observe its behavior. He notes that the system’s realism and versatility enable it to be used at any stage of nanosatellite design and testing.

“Everything that is designed for space activities can have an immediate [impact] on Earth, resulting in daily life benefits and meeting needs that haven’t been met yet,” says Avino. “ATENA represents our desire to innovate with a multinational company like Comau.”

“We are proud to have contributed our robots to this project initiated by Argotec,” adds Massimo Calvetto, sales manager for general industry in Italy at Comau. “Although Comau is known as a leader in the automotive sector, the company is always ready to [apply its products] to other sectors as well, such as aerospace.”

Quick and precise, the Racer 7-1.4 robot has a 7-kilogram payload and a 1,436-millimeter reach. Repeatability is 0.05 millimeter, and the robot weighs 180 kilograms. It has a compact footprint and can be floor, ceiling or slope (45 degrees maximum) mounted. Besides testing, the robot is used in assembly, machine tending, packaging, polishing, deburring and arc welding applications.

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