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Mathematical Sciences

Boosting spacecraft design

The European Space Agency (ESA) can now design more efficient and quality spacecraft thanks to a new software toolbox devised by mathematicians at the University of Southampton.

Research challenge

Designing spacecraft is a complex subject with many conflicting design objectives. Today’s craft are used for a variety of purposes such as communications, meteorology, navigation, exploration and transportation, and the cost of launching a craft into space is very costly. So the design of efficient but lightweight system components is vital in spacecraft development.

Southampton researchers including Professor Jörg Fliege and PhD students  Marta Valcarcel and Banafsheh Khosravi were challenged to develop a software toolbox that could help maximise the design of a variety of spacecraft parts including heat pipes, turbo pumps and injection chambers.


Every year Europe's foremost commercial space transportation company Arianespace launches an average of $103b of spacecraft. This is about 17 satellites launches a year with each satellite containing at least one antenna system, several heat pumps and various other items that need to be efficient and cost -effective. The ESA is currently designing 20 spacecraft that will be launched between 2013 and 2022. These spacecraft contain various subsystems with conflicting design objectives. The ESA funded Southampton mathematicians to develop a computational toolbox that will allow them to solve the multi-objective optimisation problems that occur in space engineering and spacecraft design.

Our solution

Southampton mathematicians have designed a Multi-criteria Optimisation Add-on for Filter Globalisation Toolbox. This allows the ESA to use new and unique mathematical results to design efficient and effective spacecraft parts. The development of heat pipes is one area where this new software can have a significant impact. Heat pipes are used extensively in spacecraft, however, the most efficient heat pipes are invariably heavier than less efficient ones. The toolbox techniques can help space engineers find the perfect trade-off between mass and effectiveness.

As well as enhancing the development of spacecraft products, the new software toolbox can also be used to help plot space missions.

What was the impact?

The Multi-criteria Optimisation Add-on for Filter Globalisation Toolbox has become a standard part of the ESA's design technology and has been applied to the thermal design of spacecraft subsystems, as well as to the shape optimisation of antenna systems. The software has helped the ESA significantly improve its own capabilities and performance, enhance its practices in multi-objective optimisation, and move towards new areas of multi-objective optimisation. It has also allowed the ESA to maintain a competitive edge in the design of these space products. The lessons learned in developing the toolbox are now also put to use the recently launched AWACS project, that aims to provide computational tools for aircraft trajectory optimization to minimize aircraft emissions and noise.


European Space Agency

Related Staff Member

Southampton researchers were challenged to develop a software toolbox that could help maximise the design of a variety of spacecraft parts including heat pipes, turbo pumps and injection chambers.

Jörg Fliege - Professor in Mathematical Sciences

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