An industrial doctorate seeks to revolutionise access to space by optimising the supervision of launches

Alejandro Sabán, industrial doctoral student, leads pioneering research within the framework of the European SALTO project | The project aims to revolutionize access to space by improving the capabilities of spaceports, reducing operational costs.
The industrial doctoral student Alejandro Sabán at the facilities of the company GTD where he develops the project

Today, the world is experiencing a time when the space race is once again the order of the day. The European space industry is at a crucial juncture , where competitiveness and autonomy are key to keeping pace with other global powers such as the United States and China. Since 2015, several studies have highlighted the need to reduce the costs of space launches in order to reach 2030 with more affordable missions. But it's not just about costs, it's also essential to increase the flexibility of launch services and reduce environmental impact.

The European space industry, aware of the challenges in competitiveness and sustainability, has launched several initiatives to stay at the forefront, reduce costs and minimize the environmental impact of its launches. Among these initiatives, the SALTO project stands out, an ambitious proposal that seeks to revolutionize European space launches through technological innovation and interdisciplinary collaboration.

Funding from the European Commission's Horizon Europe programme was the key opportunity to move forward with this project, aimed at reducing operating costs and the environmental footprint of space launches. This is how the SALTO consortium was born, led by ArianeGroup and made up of 25 companies (plus one associate), including the company GTD Sistemas de Informacion , which collaborates with the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya (UPC) to carry out this industrial doctorate. At the same time, the project aims to boost the European space industry towards a greener and more competitive future.

The consortium's goal is to mature technologies for the reuse of launchers, rockets used to carry payloads, such as a manned spacecraft or satellites, from the Earth's surface to outer space. This is a milestone that has so far only been achieved and consolidated by Elon Musk's American company, SpaceX, with its Falcon 9s. In this context, the GTD company is developing an innovative system for destroying launchers that is completely autonomous. The destruction or neutralization of launchers consists of exploding or stopping the engines of a launcher and dropping it to prevent it from becoming a dangerous object for the safety of the people and property it flies over. It is important to note that this destruction or shutdown of the engines is carried out in safe areas previously defined by the competent flight safety authorities, when the trajectory or subsystems of the launcher violate the established safety limits.


It is within the framework of this project that the strategic research of industrial doctoral student Alejandro Sabán is framed, who began his industrial doctorate project motivated to continue his studies after the master's degree. Sabán's fascination with space did not begin as a child, but developed through his studies in aeronautical engineering, andinspired by Formula 1 and the aerodynamics of racing cars. Participation in the industrial doctorate project represents a profoundly significant experience both personally and professionally for the doctoral student: "through this experience, I am being able to contribute my grain of sand to advance in the current industrial landscape".

Aligned with the company's objectives, Sabán's research focuses on improving the safety and efficiency of space launches. As the doctoral student himself explains: "imagine that you are observing a space launch, and your purpose is to make sure that everything develops safely for both the launcher and the people and material goods it flies over, from the moment it is at the launch base until it reaches space". Currently, the supervision of launches involves the collection of data using telemetry antennas and radars, with operators making decisions in real time from the launch base. A process with disadvantages such as latency in decision-making, high operating costs due to the need for globally distributed infrastructures, and specialized training of operators.

The most notable innovation of the doctoral student's research is the development of an autonomous launcher destruction system for the European space field. In other words, a system that can make decisions automatically, according to the industrial doctoral student: "designed to replace the supervision and decision-making operations that currently depend on flight safety operators located in spaceports".

Alejandro Sabán analyzing the results of the system in a real trajectory

On the other hand, the industrial doctorate aims to contribute to environmental sustainability, with the elimination of globally distributed infrastructures for launch supervision, thus eliminating the need for operators to travel for maintenance tasks of ground flight supervision systems. In this way, together with the rest of the technologies proposed by the SALTO project consortium to reduce the carbon footprint and promote the reuse of launchers, Europe could lead the way towards more sustainable space missions. Finally, as Sabán himself concludes, "the ultimate goal of this research is to provide the European space industry with an advanced and efficient technological tool that consolidates its capacity for innovation and increases its competitiveness at the global level". In this sense, the technological demonstrator currently being developed by the industrial doctorate project becomes a significant contribution to the evolution and progress of the European space sector.

A very interesting aspect of Sabán's project is the event that will validate the effectiveness of the system in a real environment, opening up new possibilities for exploration and innovation with artificial intelligence algorithms. The project will have the opportunity to carry out tests of its system during a flight campaign scheduled for 2025 at the Kiruna spaceport in Sweden. This campaign is aimed at testing the THEMIS stage and the Prometheus engine, a project developed by ArianeGroup in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA), where its main objective is to test and validate the components and technologies necessary for the reuse of launchers.

The most significant impact of the doctoral student's project on society is the reduction of the operational costs of space launches, which could transform access to space for new actors. This democratization can generate new applications and services that directly benefit society. For example, satellite constellations such as Starlink and OneWeb seek to provide connectivity to regions where cabling is complicated and expensive. Reducing the operational costs of launches could facilitate the creation of similar solutions, offering new opportunities and improvements in everyday life.

According to Eduard Diez i Lledó, the project manager of the GTD company, the completion of the project will have a significant impact on attracting talent and training in the fields of aerospace and aviation engineering in Catalonia and Europe. In the words of Diez: "in the case of going from prototype to operational system, the project will require engineers trained or specialized in domains that are currently state of the art".

Start of the first launch campaign of Ariane 6 on the launch pad

From an academic point of view, the co-director of the project, Dr. Manel Soria Guerrero, highlights that aerospace technology is a sector with great potential to create added value: "the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya has made a sustained effort to provide itself with competitive degrees in this field". Dr. Miquel Sureda Anfres, also co-director of the project, complements this vision, stating that this industrial doctorate is an excellent opportunity to produce relevant knowledge in European launcher technology. In addition, the project generates important synergies with GTD, a key company in the aerospace sector, reinforcing the collaboration between the university and industry.

With regard to the tangible benefits of projects such as the one we are dealing with, Dr. Soria explains that the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya ensures the translation of results into tangible benefits through a virtuous circle: basic research feeds applied research, which is transferred to students and, subsequently, to value-added companies. The current project, developed in contact with the company from the outset and aligned with the European strategy of reducing the cost of start-up, is a good example of how to close this circle. However, academics believe that these projects need to be complemented with more basic research, with no immediate industrial interest.

Sabán's conclusion is that collaborative research has been essential for the industrial doctorate project. Collaborating with the different companies of the SALTO consortium, knowledge and technologies have been shared to improve the quality of research. Also, participation in congresses and seminars has made it possible to validate ideas and incorporate the best practices in the sector. In the words of the doctoral student: "collaborative research provides me with an essential basis for the development of my project, connecting with experts in different areas, facilitating the transfer of knowledge and contributing to innovation and progress in the field of space technology".

Once the project is over, the doctoral student plans to continue his professional career in the space sector, maintaining his relationship with the company GTD. For this reason, Sabán stresses the importance of continuing to exploit the results of the project: "this continuity reflects my ambition to contribute significantly to the growth and advancement of the space sector through a company with great relevance in the sector and, with which I can grow professionally".

In conclusion, this industrial PhD not only represents a significant technological breakthrough for the SALTO project and the European space industry in general, but also exemplifies how collaborative research and innovation can drive sustainability and efficiency in this sector that is at a great moment in its history. Sabán's trajectory is a testimony to how academic and professional efforts can converge to generate innovative and sustainable solutions. In short, a project that can redefine access to space, offering a greener and more accessible vision for the future of space exploration.