- Open Access
Review of Large Spacecraft Deployable Membrane Antenna Structures
© The Author(s) 2017
- Received: 28 February 2017
- Accepted: 12 October 2017
- Published: 7 November 2017
The demand for large antennas in future space missions has increasingly stimulated the development of deployable membrane antenna structures owing to their light weight and small stowage volume. However, there is little literature providing a comprehensive review and comparison of different membrane antenna structures. Space-borne membrane antenna structures are mainly classified as either parabolic or planar membrane antenna structures. For parabolic membrane antenna structures, there are five deploying and forming methods, including inflation, inflation-rigidization, elastic ribs driven, Shape Memory Polymer (SMP)-inflation, and electrostatic forming. The development and detailed comparison of these five methods are presented. Then, properties of membrane materials (including polyester film and polyimide film) for parabolic membrane antennas are compared. Additionally, for planar membrane antenna structures, frame shapes have changed from circular to rectangular, and different tensioning systems have emerged successively, including single Miura–Natori, double, and multi-layer tensioning systems. Recent advances in structural configurations, tensioning system design, and dynamic analysis for planar membrane antenna structures are investigated. Finally, future trends for large space membrane antenna structures are pointed out and technical problems are proposed, including design and analysis of membrane structures, materials and processes, membrane packing, surface accuracy stability, and test and verification technology. Through a review of large deployable membrane antenna structures, guidance for space membrane-antenna research and applications is provided.
- Membrane antenna
- Tensioning system
With an increasing demand for large-aperture (hundreds of square meters or more) space-borne antennas, deployable membrane antennas have been attracting interest in space research areas. In comparison with traditional rigid antennas, membrane antennas can easily achieve larger scale with lighter weight, smaller stowage volume, and lower cost. At present, there are two main kinds of space-borne membrane antenna structures: parabolic and planar membrane antenna structures. These membrane antenna structures generally involve a membrane surface, support structures, and a tensioning system. Since 1970, a series of explorations of membrane antennas have been carried out in the United States, Europe, Japan, etc. Some progress has also been made in this domain over the past 10 years in China. However, up until now, no membrane antennas have been applied in space, except an American inflatable antenna with a diameter of 14 m that had space flight experience in 1996. It is obvious that applications of large membrane antennas in space still face many difficulties and challenges. In order to promote membrane antenna progress, it is necessary to review the development of deployable membrane antenna structures and provide guidance for space membrane-antenna researchers. Creative design and analysis of some deployable structures and mechanisms were presented in Refs. [1–11], but deployable membrane antenna structures were not considered. Although structural characteristics and application prospects of inflatable antennas were summarized in Refs. [12–14], and advances in parabolic membrane antennas over the past decades were presented in Refs. [15, 16], characteristic comparisons were not considered among these membrane antenna structures. Additionally, Refs. [12–16] focused only on some special membrane antenna structures. So far, there has been little literature reviewing recent developments and providing a comprehensive comparison of different membrane antenna structures. Aimed at the problems described above, this paper presents recent advances, characteristic comparisons, technical problems, and future trends for large membrane antenna structures.
Parabolic membrane antennas are folded or wrapped when in stowed condition. When the spacecraft reaches its orbit, the antenna is deployed to the desired reflector surface according to flight procedures. At present, there are five methods for deploying and forming large parabolic membrane antennas, which are inflation, inflation-rigidization, elastic ribs driven, Shape Memory Polymer (SMP)-inflation, and electrostatic forming.
Design parameters for inflatable antennas generally include inflation pressure, membrane thickness, elastic modulus of membrane material, boundary conditions, temperature, etc. In 2001, Greschik et al.  from the University of Colorado, investigated the influence of membrane thickness, membrane materials, thermal effects, boundary perturbations, and membrane wrinkles on surface accuracy, but the geometric differences of the membrane reflector shape during its deformation process were not considered in the calculation. In 2004, Naboulsi  from the Air Force Institute of Technology, carried out a detailed study on the main structure of an inflatable antenna (including the membrane reflector, inflatable struts, and torus) with the software ABAQUS. The results show that at higher inflation pressure, the surface shape error is greater, and asymmetric inflation pressure on the inflatable torus causes larger reflector surface deformations than symmetrical pressure. However, the effect of membrane wrinkles caused by the asymmetric inflation pressure on surface accuracy was not analyzed in this paper. In 2006, Xu et al.  from Zhejiang University, further analyzed the influence of inflation pressure and antenna focal length on reflector surface accuracy and proposed that surface accuracy could be adjusted by cable tension force. However, further studies that consider the cable deformations during the adjustment are still necessary. In 2012, Coleman et al.  from George Washington University, investigated the influence of edge forces and reflector diameters on reflector surface accuracy. For antennas with a diameter greater than 10 m, the influence of internal pressure on the surface accuracy is greater than the influence of edge forces. However, the membrane nonlinear property was not taken into account in the analysis. In 2015, Liu et al.  from Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, used the Hamilton principle to deduce the frequency equation and mode function of inflatable antennas based on the Donnell nonlinear thin shell theory. However, changes in inflation pressure were ignored in the modal analysis.
In summary, the present design and analysis of inflatable antennas only focus on research on the influence of the relevant parameters for reflector surface accuracy. In-depth multi-objective structure optimization analysis and dynamic analysis of rigid-flexible coupling systems for spacecraft with large membrane antennas are required.
Inflatable antennas show great advantages owing to their light weights and small stowage volumes. However, the slow gas leakage in orbit requires a gas supplement system, leading to weight gain and short service life. Another disadvantage is that it is difficult for inflatable antennas to maintain the required surface accuracy under the alternating temperature conditions in space.
In the process of inflation-rigidization, the membrane reflector is rigidized after being inflated to the desired parabolic shape and inflation pressure is released.
Inflatable-rigidizable antennas avoid some disadvantages faced by inflatable antennas, including decrease in surface accuracy, antenna performance degradation, and the requirement for a continuous gas supplement. However, their ability to maintain surface accuracy depends on further improvement of rigidizable material thermal stability, which is not good enough at present.
2.3 Elastic Ribs Driven
In 2002, Pellegrino  from the University of Cambridge, developed an elastic ribs driven membrane antenna with a diameter of 1.5 m, which achieved a surface accuracy of 2.0 mm RMS, as shown in Figure 4. The reflector was composed of 12 elastic ribs, a central hub, and aluminized polyester film. When the antenna was folded, the ribs and film were twisted on the central hub and bound by rope. Once the rope was cut, the ribs released elastic potential energy to drive the membrane reflector deployment. Pellegrino designed the antenna diameter, focal length, surface accuracy, and membrane stress distribution and performed the deployment experiment. However, several elastic ribs were damaged because of an improper folding approach, and, in consequence, the 12 elastic ribs were deployed simultaneously. Therefore, further study is needed in antenna folding approaches.
Although elastic ribs driven membrane antennas are lightweight, the stiffness and surface accuracy is relatively low. In addition, deployment reliability is affected by complex movements, including the cutting of the rope before the ribs deploy and the rotation of ribs after their elastic potential energy is released.
SMP-inflatable membrane antennas  are deployed and formed by the shape memory effect of SMP materials  and inflation. On the ground, the antenna is packed by an external mechanical load above the glass transition temperature of SMP material. Then, by keeping the external load constant and the temperature below the glass transition temperature, the antenna remains in the same state after unloading. When the spacecraft reaches its orbit, the membrane antenna is heated above the glass transition temperature, and the inflatable struts are inflated according to flight procedures. The reflector surface and torus are deployed gradually by shape recovery and thrust provided by the inflatable struts. Finally, the reflective surface returns automatically to the initial parabolic shape and is rigidized after the temperature drops below the glass transition temperature.
SMP-inflatable membrane antenna deployment is driven by shape memory effect and inflation, of which the former dominates, and the antennas are rigidized after deployment. Thus, they have high reliability and strong surface accuracy maintaining ability. However, the heating power required during deployment is great (an antenna with a diameter of 35 m requires power of 67.77 kW), which is difficult to realize in the case of energy shortages.
2.5 Electrostatic Forming
The Astromesh antenna has successfully flown in space . In order to further improve its surface accuracy, a gap is made between the membrane and the electrodes mounted on the front net of the Astromesh antenna structure, resulting in the formation of an electric field. Because of the electric field force, the metal-coated membrane is suspended on the front net and finally becomes a parabolic surface. The gap between the electrodes and membrane can be adjusted by the electrostatic force so as to actively control the reflector shape accuracy.
The electrostatic-forming membrane antenna reflector surface can be controlled in real time by adjusting electrostatic forces, thus improving surface stability. Based on the mature Astromesh antenna technologies, electrostatic forming membrane antennas can theoretically be applied to large-sized and high-precision antennas in the future. However, the antennas require high voltage (up to several thousand volts), which will bring electrostatic damage and safety risks to electronic products on the spacecraft. In addition, electrodes mounted on the front net might increase the risk of winding among the wires, membrane, and deployment mechanism of the support structure. Therefore, applications of this antenna technology in spacecraft are subject to many constraints at present.
Comparison of parabolic membrane antennas with different deploying and forming methods
Elastic ribs driven
L’Garde in the USA
ESA and Contraves in Switzerland
University of Cambridge
NASA Langley Research Center
SRS and Northrop Grumman
1.5 mm RMS
0.98 mm RMS
2 mm RMS
1 mm RMS
1.1 mm RMS
Precision maintaining ability
Light weight; Large packing factor
No need for gas after rigidization; Strong precision maintaining ability
Strong precision maintaining ability;
High deployment reliability
High surface accuracy; Strong precision maintaining ability
Gas leakage; Easily affected by alternating temperature conditions; Difficult to maintain surface accuracy; Short service life
Membrane wrinkles in rigidization process;
Requires further improvement for
material thermal stability
Low stiffness; Deployment reliability is affected by complex movements
Requires great heating power, which is difficult to realize in the case of energy shortages
Electrostatic damage and security risks of high voltage;
Risks of winding
Properties of several kinds of membrane materials
Thermal expansion coefficient
Elongation at break
Anti-ultraviolet radiation ability
As shown in Table 2, compared with polyester film, polyimide film has a larger modulus, higher tensile strength, lower thermal expansion coefficient, smaller elongation at break, and stronger anti-ultraviolet radiation ability. Therefore, polyimide film is considered to be a better candidate material in future space applications.
In 1998, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and ILC Dover, Inc. developed a 1 m diameter X-band planar membrane reflect array antenna , as shown in Figure 7(a). The two-layer membrane was polyimide film with both sides clad with 0.5 µm thick copper. The frame was a circular inflatable tube, which was connected to a tripod supporting the antenna feed. In 2000, the two companies co-developed a 3 m Ka-band membrane reflect array antenna , as shown in Figure 7(b). The horseshoe shaped frame consisted of one straight rigid tube, two straight tubes, and one semi-circular inflatable tube. The membrane could be rolled on the rigid tube to avoid creases. There were 16 catenary points distributed on the horseshoe shaped frame to apply stress on the membrane, and the surface flatness was measured to be ± 0.2 mm. In 2002, JPL proposed the idea of a “movie screen” membrane array antenna with a rectangular frame [44, 45], as shown in Figure 7(c). The antenna feed was offset on the spacecraft, which eliminated the need for a feed-supporting tripod, resulting in a more compact structure. Two edges of the rectangular frame were inflatable tubes, and the other two edges were flat panels covered by roll-up shells, on which the membrane could be tightly rolled. Several cross bars, distributed uniformly on the membrane and employed as compression members to stretch the membrane, had no connection with the inflatable tubes. One constant force spring hung on each end of the cross bar and was connected to cables at the membrane edge. Similarly, some constant force springs hung on the flat panel and were connected to the cable. The membrane was deployed by the tubes inflating and was tensioned by constant force springs after deployment. From 2004 to 2008, JPL conducted a series of studies on “movie screen” antennas [46–48]. In 2008, a 2.2 m × 2.2 m planar membrane antenna was developed and achieved a surface flatness of 0.17 mm.
In 2008, Guan et al. , from Zhejiang University, developed a 2 m × 2 m planar membrane antenna, whose structural configuration was similar to the one in Figure 7(c). The surface flatness was measured to be 0.32 mm. In 2012, Li et al. , developed a 6 m × 2 m L/C dual-band, single-layer planar membrane antenna, but the deployment was not considered for this paper.
In 2007, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) developed a 2 m × 3 m planar membrane SAR antenna with a three-layer membrane [58, 59], as shown in Figure 8(b). A multi-bar mechanism was adopted to realize two-dimensional antenna deployment , as shown in Figure 8(c). In 2008, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) developed a 6 m × 1.3 m membrane SAR antenna with a four-layer membrane, which was deployed by rollable carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) booms [61, 62]. The antenna structure configuration was similar to that in Figure 7(c), but cables at the membrane edges were connected directly to the CFRP booms instead of the cross bars. In 2012, in order to avoid boom deformations caused by cable tensile force, Straubel et al.  added cross bars to the antenna structure and both ends of the bars were interfaced with CFRP booms, as shown in Figure 8(d). These two parts had no connections in Figure 7(c).
Comparison of planar membrane antenna structural configurations
Membrane layer No.
Membrane reflect array antennas
Membrane phased array antennas
5.1 Design and Analysis of Tensioning System
In 2000, Lin (of ILC Dover) et al.  designed the single tensioning system, as shown in Figure 8(a). The membrane edges are cut into curved pockets, in which cables can move freely. Two ends of the cable are tightened to the rectangular frame (the frame is not shown in the figure). One pocket corresponds to two tensioning points, and n pockets correspond to n tensioning points. Membranes with more pockets could get more uniform stress but the number of connection points between the membrane and frame increases simultaneously. Lin et al. , pointed out circular pockets could make a membrane in an isotropic tensile stress state. In 2001, however, Fang (of JPL) et al. , revealed that parabolic pockets could reduce membrane wrinkles. For membranes with multiple pockets, Fang et al. , analyzed the relationships between the cable tension force, number of pockets, and length of pockets. However, the effects of the pocket number and pocket length on the membrane effective area were not analyzed. In 2010, taking a rectangular membrane as an example, Xiao et al. , from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, compared parabolic and circular pockets with different rise-to-span ratios (the ratio of pocket depth to length). The results show that a membrane with parabolic pockets gets more uniform stress distribution. Only a few rise-to-span ratios were calculated in this paper, so the conclusion universality needs to be further verified.
The Miura–Natori tensioning system  was proposed by Koryo Miura and Michihiro Natori of the Institute of Space and Aeronautical Science (ISAS) in 1985, as shown in Figure 8(b). The straight rectangular membrane edges without pockets are connected directly with tie cables, which are connected with outer cables. Both ends of the outer cables are tightened to the rectangular frame. This tensioning system could reduce the number of connection points between the frame and membrane, thus simplifying the frame design. However, the tie cable tension force will produce wrinkles at the membrane edges and the wrinkles will propagate to the middle of the membrane. Furthermore, so many tie cables will lead to cable winding, which will increase the risk of antenna deployment failure.
In 2003, Sakamoto et al. , from the University of Colorado, proposed the double tensioning system, as shown in Figure 8(c). It is equivalent to a combination of the single and Miura–Natori tensioning systems. Tie cables are connected with both the inner cables in the pockets and the outer cables tightened to the frame. After comparing the single and double tensioning systems, Sakamoto et al. , pointed out that when applying the same stress on the membrane, the cable mass and tension force required for the double tensioning system are smaller, and the membrane is more resistant to wrinkling, but the risk of antenna deployment failure still exists because of cable winding. In this paper, the relationships between pocket parameters and membrane anti-wrinkle ability were not analyzed. In 2008, Guan et al. , from Zhejiang University, optimized the number of pockets, aiming at minimizing the force loaded to the frame, and revealed that odd numbers are better than even. However, the length of the pockets and tie cables were not optimized in this paper.
In 2005, Sakamoto et al. , put forward the multi-layer tensioning system, which is a combination of the double tensioning system and a layer of tie cables, as shown in Figure 8(d). The two layers of tie cables are connected by some cables. Adding a layer of tie cables reduces the impact of frame vibrations on the membrane, but the cable mass and risk of deployment failure caused by cable windings will increase. Sakamoto et al. , performed response analysis of membrane structures to external low frequency disturbances. The results show that the multi-layer tensioning system enhanced the passive vibration isolation effect in the boundary layers. However, the optimal balance between the vibration isolation effect and cable mass was not considered in this paper.
In general, in order to apply uniform stress to the membrane, the single, double, and multi-layer tensioning systems can meet the requirements. However, connection points between the frame and membrane should be as few as possible, so the single tensioning system is not suitable for large planar membrane antennas. Double and multi-layer tensioning systems are the development tendency, and future studies are still needed for multi-objective optimizations of these two tensioning systems to reduce mass and to improve their anti-wrinkle and anti-vibration abilities.
5.2 Structural Dynamics
Planar membrane antenna performance is directly affected by the surface flatness. As a typical flexible membrane structure, its dynamic characteristics have great influence on the surface flatness. Therefore, it is necessary to perform dynamic analysis on planar membrane antenna structures. In 2007, Shen (of CSA) et al. , conducted modal analysis on a membrane with circular pockets with ABAQUS and found that the fundamental frequency of the membrane was directly proportional to the square root of membrane stress. In 2010, Xiao et al. , analyzed the fundamental frequency of rectangular membranes with different rise-to-span ratios of pockets with ABAQUS and pointed out that when the ratio decreased, the fundamental frequency of the membrane decreased slightly. In 2015, Liu et al. , from Xidian University, studied the influence of pocket geometry parameters on the membrane fundamental frequency and revealed that when the center angle of the pockets increased, the fundamental frequency increased. The above modal analyses only focus on the membrane instead of the whole antenna structure, which consists of the membrane, frames, and tensioning systems. In 2006, Fang et al.  performed numerical simulations on a model of the whole antenna structure by the distributed transfer function method, but the membrane structure geometric nonlinearity was not taken into account. In 2012, Hu et al. , from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, carried out modal analysis of the whole antenna structure with ABAQUS and found that membrane stress had a greater influence on the fundamental frequency than area density, but the relationships between the fundamental frequency and frame structure parameters were not analyzed.
In short, most of the current dynamic analysis of planar membrane antenna structures just focuses on antennas after deployment and on some local parts, and the membrane structure flexibility is ignored. Therefore, it is necessary to engage further study on dynamics of antennas during deployment and the rigid-flexible coupling system of the entire spacecraft.
Inflatable antennas will gradually be replaced by inflatable-rigidizable antennas because of gas leakage, short service life, etc.
If the cable winding probability can be reduced and high voltage hazard can be eliminated, surface accuracy of electrostatic forming membrane antennas will be further improved based on existing Astromesh antennas. Therefore, the electrostatic forming membrane antenna will be a good candidate for a large antenna with high precision.
Among the parabolic membrane antennas mentioned above, the SMP-inflatable membrane antennas have strong surface stability and high deployment reliability. If enough power can be supplied, SMP-inflatable membrane antennas will be another development trend for large-scale and high-precision antennas.
Polyimide film will be a good candidate for reflector membrane materials because of its good mechanical properties, high thermal stability, and strong anti-radiation ability.
Frame shapes of planar membrane reflect array antennas tend to be rectangular.
Both CFRP and inflatable-rigidizable booms have promising futures in membrane SAR antenna applications.
The double and multi-layer tensioning systems have the advantages of reducing the number of connection points between the frame and membrane and improving the anti-wrinkle and anti-vibration ability of membrane structures. Therefore, they will be widely used in future large planar membrane antenna applications.
In order to realize the space applications of large membrane antennas, the following technical problems should be solved.
6.2.1 Design and Analysis of Membrane Structures
In order to determine the shape of membrane to be cut, an inverse solution to the configuration of a membrane structure in the unstressed state should be obtained based on its desired configuration under the stressed state.
Multi-parameter and multi-objective optimizations of the high precision membrane antenna structures should be performed considering the membrane material creep property and structural nonlinearity.
Membrane wrinkle numerical simulation [74–76] aimed at large membrane antenna structures should be studied so that the specific locations and intensity of membrane wrinkles caused by external perturbations can be obtained, which is necessary for large membrane antenna structural design.
Dynamics of rigid-flexible coupling systems, such as spacecraft structures with large membrane antenna structures, need to be further studied, along with the dynamics of antennas in the deployment process.
Further research about the effects of mechanical-thermal-electrical coupling factors on membrane antenna surface accuracy should be emphasized.
6.2.2 Materials and Processes
Wider size polyimide film manufacturing technologies should be developed to prevent membrane wrinkles, which generally exist in the connecting areas between small pieces.
Polyimide film with a smaller thermal expansion coefficient and quality loss in space should be developed to improve membrane antenna dimensional stability and endurance in orbit.
Technologies for metal coating on large polyimide film surfaces need to be further investigated to reduce the effect of non-uniformity on surface accuracy and reflectivity of the membrane reflector.
It is necessary to further improve the performance stability and service life in orbit of current composite materials used in support structures and to develop new composite materials with higher stiffness and lighter mass for larger scale support structures.
6.2.3 Packing Methods for Membrane Antennas
Packing methods for membrane antennas should be studied, so that antenna storage volume and packing complexity can be reduced with no electronic device damage occurring.
6.2.4 Surface Accuracy Stability in Orbit
The surface accuracy maintaining system consists of a surface measuring system , a control system, and actuators placed on the reflector surface [78, 79]. It is necessary to look for a way to increase the measuring system accuracy, improve the control system algorithms that consider membrane material creep properties and structural nonlinearity, and optimize the actuator numbers and configurations.
6.2.5 Test and Verification Technology
It is important to develop a method for minimizing the effect of ground microgravity simulation systems on the experimental measurement results for lightweight and flexible membrane antenna structures in the future.
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