The Ariane 5 space rocket takes less than two and a half minutes to burn all the propellant when it lifts off from the aerospace base in French Guiana.
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Penta engines in operation at European Space Agency

Volvo Penta’s industrial engines are used all over the world and one of the most remote places is a spaceport in the South-American jungle. Here, at the ESA, European Space Agency’s base in Kourou in French Guyana, two Volvo Penta engines are working hard to power the machines that transport the solid-fuel boosters for the Ariane 5 launcher’s main stage.

 

However, our story begins not in the South-American tropics but far across the ocean in Italy. Nestled in the tiny town of Borgo San Dalmazzo at the foot of the Alps, 100 km outside Turin, is Industrie Cometto, an equipment manufacturer that has been building semi-trailers, modular trailers and self-propelled haulers since 1955. Its products, manufactured on a per-project basis, can move an impressive amount of weight: the largest trailers stretch up to 60 metres, with 40 rows of wheels, and can move a 7,000-tonne ship. The company has patented its steering and suspension system, which is first in its class for load capability, with each axle able to bear up to 60 tonnes.

“The strength of Cometto machines is in the design,” says Luigi Terzuolo, technical director of Cometto. “We design every part of these machines in house – including the software used to steer our remote-controlled units. We know our products inside out, so we are able to customise them as requested.”

Cometto began working with the ESA in 1990, when the company delivered a hauler to move rocket boosters around the Guyanese spaceport. The ESA launches spacecraft for telecoms, weather monitoring and satellite purposes – and Kourou’s location 500 km north of the equator is ideal, with the earth’s rotation providing the spacecraft with some added velocity.

With the machine beginning to show its age, Cometto has just put the finishing touches to the new machine. The 16.8-metre-long, 5.5-metre-wide unit will be shipped next month to Kourou, where it will be used to move the bottom two segments of the rocket boosters. Hydraulically powered for excellent traction, the machine is able to move backwards and forwards or side to side – making an otherwise long and unwieldy machine surprisingly manoeuvrable. Each segment weighs in at 150 tonnes, measures 15 metres in length and contains 107 tonnes of solid rocket propellant to launch the Ariane 5 main stage spacecraft. The fuel does not last long; the Ariane 5 burns through the propellant in less than two and a half minutes as it shoots into space at a rate of two kilometres a second. 

Not only is the cargo enormous, but working condition in Kourou can also be treacherous. Situated between the Atlantic Coast and a dense swathe of rainforest, the area is hot, humid and salty and the distinct possibility of a lightning strike makes hauling the fuel-filled segments a very dangerous business indeed.

Because the machine can bear such heavy, volatile loads, it was crucial that Cometto used engines that were reliable and tough – in addition to being quiet and fuel efficient. That is why the company went with seven-litre Volvo Penta engines, capable of producing 235 kW apiece. Two engines were installed to maximise uptime: if one engine experiences a problem, the machine can continue working at a lower speed.

“We’ve been using Volvo Penta engines since 1995, so we already had a strong relationship with the company when we chose its engines,” Terzuolo says. “At Volvo Penta, we have one person solely dedicated to working with us on both sales and engineering, which means that we can expect a quick response time – we don’t get bogged down in a long chain of communication. Volvo Penta is more customer focused than product focused and we appreciate the close collaboration we enjoy with the company.”

“But, even though good service and a customer focus are extremely important to us, they aren’t enough on their own. Fortunately, the engines Volvo Penta offers also happen to suit our requirements perfectly, providing us with the power, reliability and efficiency we need.”

Volvo Penta will not be blasting into outer space itself any time soon. However, it is clear that, when they join forces, Volvo Penta and Cometto make an out-of-this-world duo.

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