Minimize Test campaign of space batteries for cleaner skies

Test campaign of space batteries to destruction for cleaner skies

Engineers descended into bunkers to test space batteries to destruction – through overheating, overcharging, short circuits and even by shooting them with bullets. The three-year test campaign is helping assess the risk of abandoned satellites exploding in orbit due to catastrophic battery reactions. 1)

Extreme ‘abuse' testing of the current generation of lithium-ion batteries for space took place in the test bunkers of France's Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). The objective was to develop guidelines to ensure batteries aboard satellites stay safely inactive after the end of a space mission, helping to avoid satellite breakups, a major source of space debris.

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Figure 1: This overcharge test of a lithium-ion battery cell at CEA test facilities in France resulted in an explosion (image credit: ESA/Airbus)

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Figure 2: Exploding battery module: This 'abuse' test overcharge of a space battery module led to temperatures of 950 °C and ultimately an explosion (image credit: ESA/Airbus)

"Of more than 250 known satellite explosions that have taken place in orbit, about 10 have been due to batteries," explains ESA power systems engineer François Bausier, overseeing the project. "All the battery explosions in the past were from older technologies that are no longer used for new ESA missions."

"Current lithium-ion batteries for space have never been observed to break up in flight, but they may well explode if thermally, electrically or mechanically abused. Therefore we've subjected them to extremely harsh conditions to simulate what the batteries could encounter once a space mission concludes and a satellite is left drifting in orbit."

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Figure 3: Image of a DMSP (Defense Meteorological Satellite Program) satellite of the US Air Force, a military weather satellite located in low-Earth orbit. The DMSP-13 spacecraft broke up into some 40 pieces on 3 February 2015. This explosion is believed to have been caused by a battery overcharge (image credit: USAF)

Taking place as part of ESA's Clean Space initiative, the testing came out of a larger focus on making satellites safe once their mission ends by powering them down fully.

More than 200 abuse tests took place on different types of battery cells and modules – meaning multiple cells connected together. These cells were either brand new or had been subjected to simulated space radiation and charged and discharged many times to age them. The tests included a focus on the functioning of internal protection systems within the cells themselves in extreme conditions, such as internal circuit breakers or venting mechanisms in the event of overpressure.

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Figure 4: Micrometeoroid battery impact test: To simulate a micrometeoroid impact an 8 mm bullet was fired into a space battery cell to simulate a micrometeoroid impact (image credit: ESA/Airbus)

Methods of destruction included external and internal short circuits, failures that could arise due to insulation issues, structural failures or manufacturing defects; other tests included overcharging leading to overheating and also direct overheating tests.

‘Overdischarge' tests were also performed in order to investigate whether such a decharging method could actually be used to safely ‘passivate' the batteries at their end of life.

Battery high temperatures – such as the ones that might be encountered when a drifting satellite languishes in orbital sunlight — can trigger very fast reactions, sometimes too rapid for protection systems to kick in.

"Another abuse method was to simulate a strike by a micrometeoroid or item of space debris," adds Francois. "Orbital velocities can exceed 20 km/s; we weren't able to reach this speed on the ground so decided to use a larger bullet instead – 8 mm instead of 0.8 mm. With this configuration the same overall energy was achieved."

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Figure 5: ESA's space battery 'abuse' testing included putting a nail through a battery cell, to induce an internal short circuit (image credit: ESA/Airbus)

Most testing took place in an inert atmosphere, lacking oxygen, to match the orbital environment. But this lack of oxygen does not necessarily mean that the reactions are so much less violent, as the cells themselves contain both fuel and oxidizer for combustion.

The resulting satellite passivation recommendations include that batteries should be discharged as much as possible at the end of their mission, and be fully disconnected from the solar arrays to avoid any further charge or overcharge. In addition the batteries should be kept within safe temperatures. These recommendations should be ideally considered early in the mission design phase.

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Figure 6: CleanSat passivation (image credit: ESA)

ESA battery specialist, Maria Nestoridi, supported this project. "It is important to understand that the recommendations from this activity are based on tests performed on current space-qualified lithium ion cells. Thresholds for new cell designs will of course have to be defined in the future by the respective battery manufacturers."

Passivation is an important issue for all satellites, but in particular for those in highly trafficked LEO (Low Earth Orbit) under 2000 km altitude, where international regulations demand post-mission deorbiting within 25 years, and for these satellites to remain safely inactive in the meantime.

 


1) "Testing space batteries to destruction for cleaner skies," ESA, 12 March 2019, URL: http://m.esa.int/Our_Activities/Space_Engineering_Technology/Clean_Space/
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The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (herb.kramer@gmx.net).