An innovative origami-like heat shield manufactured by Space Forge is set to be tested in a re-entry mission aboard the inaugural ForgeStar-1A mission later this year. This innovative, reusable design, backed by the European and the UK Space Agencies, promises to increase the viability of returning high-value goods from space.
A revolutionary hardware
The heat shield called “Pridwen”, named after King Arthur’s heroic shield, uses a shuttlecock design that springs out right before a spacecraft reenters the atmosphere.
As a spacecraft begins its return journey to Earth, it encounters the Earth’s atmosphere, which converts its orbital velocity into intense heat fluxes. Without proper protection, a spacecraft risks burning up during reentry. Heat shields are essential in mitigating this risk and ensuring a safe return.
Particular attention was put on the reusability of the heat shield: unlike traditional ablative heat shields that gradually burn off layers, Pridwen relies on radiation to dissipate heat, the high-temperature alloy fabric used in Pridwen has a large surface area, allowing for even heat distribution and gradual cooling.
This approach ultimately results in less material degradation during reentry, enabling the shield to retain its functionality and potentially be reused multiple times.
Not only does Pridwen protect the spacecraft from high temperatures, but it also serves the purpose of decelerating it enough to allow for a safe landing, without the need for parachutes. This simplifies the design and facilitates catching the satellite using a hover net, on the ground.
#Pridwen: A reusable heat shield that allows for the safe atmospheric re-entry of #satellites 🛰— Space Forge (@Space_Forge) May 25, 2023
Unlike standard ablative heat shields, it won't burn up upon re-entry. Check out our test drop ⬇️https://t.co/cfhF0g8UbZ@esa #Space #ForgeStar pic.twitter.com/BvpAKhyZ5R
To test the effectiveness of the heat shield, multiple drop tests have been conducted from altitudes as high as 17 km. Additionally, Space Forge has successfully carried out net captures of test items falling at terminal velocity, further validating the recovery system’s performance.
Who is Space Forge?
Space Forge, a Cardiff-based company, conceives a larger plan of in-orbit manufacturing of high-value goods, such as pharmaceuticals, superconductors, and superalloys. Furthermore, the British company aims to offer microgravity as a service, enabling customers to develop their products in space.
To do so, Space Forge is planning to utilize a world-first reusable, returnable orbital manufacturing platform, the ForgeStar™ that promises to deploy, operate, and gently return the payload to Earth.
Pridwen’s successful deployment and use will be a critical step toward realizing this ambitious goal. The shield’s ability to protect and safely return these valuable resources to Earth on a routine basis could drastically transform space commercial markets.