Media Lario leads the way to the most powerful X-ray telescope
The Italian company Media Lario specialises in the design, manufacture, characterisation and assembly of high-precision mechanical and optomechanical systems. Their core competence is based on a very special highly accurate replication technology for which the patent is pending. This uses a high-precision electroforming nickel process specially developed for the production of X-ray, optical and radio frequency telescopes.
The concept of replication technology is that a series of highly accurate components can be reproduced by exactly copying the surface of a master. The master needs to be produced only once by normal machining techniques and thereafter can be used for any number of replications. This gives Media Lario’s high-accuracy electroforming technology a competitive advantage for series productions.
The company was founded in 1993 to specifically design and develop the electroforming technology to create a new generation of highly accurate mirror shells for X-ray telescopes. Located north of Milan in Bosisio Parini, Media Lario has a staff of 34 and is today a worldwide leader in metallic electroformed high precision optical systems. Although a young company, in 1995 Media Lario was selected as prime contractor for one of the most challenging components of ESA’s XMM satellite - the mirror modules.
"Before being awarded the XMM contract we had already researched and developed a very advanced replication technology, which was used very successfully in developing three flight mirror modules for the Italian Space Agency (ASI) for use in the international programme Joint European X-ray Telescope (Jet-X). Our engineers were also involved in the manufacture of the optics for the Italian satellite Beppo-SAX, which uses the same technology of replication," says Arnoldo Valenzuela, Media Lario's president.
Media Lario has established a specialised manufacturing facility to produce mirrors for X-ray, optical and radio frequency telescopes. The total workshop area of 3000 m2 includes all necessary factory machinery tools for telescope production and 1050 m2 of clean room facilities with cleanliness class ranging from 100 to 10000. Advanced computer aided design, special finite element analysis and ray-tracing software specifically developed for Media Lario and used in the design of telescopes.
All system-engineering, electro-forming, metrology and clean room assembly work is done in-house, while the manufacture of mechanical and electronic hardware is placed with local industry. Thanks to this organisation Media Lario is able to operate in a timely and cost-effective way.
XMM-Newton mission and Media Lario
On 10 December 1999 the XMM-Newton satellite was successfully launched from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, carrying on board the most powerful X-ray telescope ever built, designed to detect spectral features of astrophysical objects such as the corona of stars, supernova remnants, binary star systems, clusters of galaxies and active galactic nuclei.
The objective of ESA was to fly an X-ray mission with a telescope four times more powerful than any other telescope in the world and with the capability of observing ten times more X-ray sources in the universe. In 1993 ESA’s Director of Science, Prof. Roger Bonnet, described the expectations set for the optical technology as being almost “a mission impossible”.
In 1995 Media Lario became the prime contractor for the XMM optics. It was the first time in the history of ESA that a Small and Medium-Sized Enterprise (SME) had been made a prime contractor for one of the most challenging components of a space observatory, the mirror modules.
The schedule requirements were quite stringent; Media Lario had to develop the whole programme, including design, production and delivery of all flight mirror modules, space qualified, by 1998. The development was carried out in close cooperation with mission scientists and the ESA-XMM team and the manufacturing process were optimised to obtain very high X-ray mirror quality with an outstanding yield rate. The powerful modules developed by Media Lario enable astronomers to discover far more X-ray sources than was previously possible.
The XMM telescope is composed of three mirror modules, each with 58 high-accuracy nested mirrors with diameters of between 306 and 700 mm, a height of 600 mm and a thickness of between 0.4 to 1.0 mm. The total surface area is more than 120 m2 – bigger than a tennis court!
Media Lario more than met the expectations of ESA and the international scientific community by providing the XMM telescope with better specifications than required and within the time schedule. In fact, the three flight units, together with the spare units of the X-ray telescope, were delivered to the satellite integrator three months ahead of schedule. As a result, Media Lario received an award from ESA for its outstanding contribution to the XMM programme.
“Spin-Off’s, and R&D” consolidates leading-edge technology
Based on the core competence of Media Lario - the development of the high precision electroforming technology - and with the cooperation and support of ESA’s SME Initiative, the company is implementing commercial fields of applications.
In 1997 Media Lario established a series of very challenging research and development (R&D) programmes supported by ESA and ASI, and partially financed by Media Lario’s own R&D investment. These are carried out in cooperation with universities (Politecnico di Milano, Università di Firenze, Università di Bologna, The University of Arizona), observatories (Osservatorio Astronomico di Brera, Osservatorio Astronomico di Arcetri, Steward Observatory) and scientific institutions (Max Planck Institut für Extraterrestrische Physik, Centre Spatial de Liège, Istituto TESRE).
As a result of these programmes a number of very interesting commercial opportunities have opened up, some of which are already being exploited in the following areas:
Telescopes for optical telecommunications in space
The results achieved in terms of replication capability and relevant production costs of the electroforming technology are very suitable for light infrared telescopes for high-speed optical data transmission through free space.
Radio telescope high-accuracy reflectors
One of the most promising results of the R&D programmes is the application of electroforming technology to the manufacture of high precision (6-7 µm RMS) reflector panels for radio telescopes. Media Lario, under an ESA contract, has manufactured and successfully tested reflector panels for the antenna prototype of the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA) in Chile, which have optimal RF performance and very low production costs. In parallel, the company is developing the electroforming technology for the production of microwave components such as corrugated feed horns and orthomode transducers for frequencies higher than 100 GHz.
Media Lario has designed and manufactured parabolic concentrators for the Grain Impact and Dust Analyser (GIADA) of the Rosetta Lander under a contract with ASI, Officine Galileo. These concentrators (25 mm diameter, 70 mm height and 400 µm thickness) are made of gold-coated electroformed nickel replicated from aluminium masters. Furthermore, Media Lario has manufactured with the electroforming technology a demonstration model for the secondary mirror of the NASA Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) project.
Cooperation with ESA gave Media Lario an opportunity to reach the leading-edge expertise that created the basis for Media Lario’s worldwide leadership in metallic electroformed high-precision optical systems.
After the results achieved with the XMM telescopes, the electroforming technology is now considered the baseline solution for the production of X-ray optics. The company has been deeply involved in the studies for the next generation ESA X-ray Observatory XEUS and has already demonstrated the possibility of producing the open surface shells required by the mission. Moreover, NASA will launch one of the X-ray telescopes manufactured by Media Lario for the JET-X project on the SWIFT Mission that will take place in 2003. This puts Media Lario in a very good competitive position to exploit new markets with their space-qualified products. These include:
- space and ground telescopes working in the range from radio frequency to X-ray
- commercial high-speed optical telecommunications for ground and space applications
- high-accuracy reflectors for radio telescopes and commercial KA band antennas.
Media Lario's systems were conceived for space programmes, but cost-competitive spin-offs are constantly being generated for high-performance terrestrial applications.
Arnoldo Valenzuela appreciates the entrepreneurial spirit of the ESA’s SME initiative and is grateful to ESA for its support and encouragement. “The SME initiative is the right approach to extend the use of space technologies in new business areas leading to future commercial growth, we at Media Lario strongly recommend that other SMEs with innovative ideas make use of the ESA’s SME initiative."