A British startup has unveiled a unique system for returning spacecraft to Earth.
The company called Space forge, developed the technology to provide a low-cost and sustainable way to reuse satellites. Ultimately, the startup wants the system to support production in space, which can produce materials that cannot be made on Earth.
These “supermaterials” have transformative potential for electronics, pharmaceuticals and alloys. Unfortunately, it is currently painfully complex and costly to return them to Earth.
To solve this problem, Space Forge has developed two separate components: ahover-net named Fielder and a heat shield named Pridwen.
Named after King Arthur’s legendary shield, Pridwen is made from a flexible alloy that can withstand harsh temperatures. It is also reusable, unlike conventional “ablative” heat shields, which have to be replaced after each flight.
To fit into a launcher, Pridwen folds down to a compact size. To protect the cargo on the return journey, the origami-style heat shield expands. Joshua Western, the co-founder of Space Forge, describes the system as “Mary Poppins but from space.”
As the spacecraft approaches the atmosphere, Pridwen will unfold like an umbrella to protect the satellite from the heat of reentry. In a manner reminiscent of a shuttle, Pridwen can also slow its fall to the Earth’s surface.
Then Fielder comes into play. As the satellite descends, the water-based hover net moves under the vehicle to soften the landing and allow a quick return to land.
According to Space Forge, the system has already completed trials including high-altitude balloon drop, sea survival and testing in plasma wind tunnels. The company is planning a launch later this year to further test the reentry system.
Ultimately, Space Forge plans to use Pridwen and Fielder in a the world’s first in-orbit and return-to-Earth production service, called ForgeStar.
“Supermaterials created in space will allow industries on Earth to save enormous amounts of energy and reduce their CO2 emissions2 emissions in a way their terrestrial counterparts can never match,” said Andrew Bacon, CTO and co-founder of Space Forge.
“Pridwen and Fielder are key components of our plan to develop fully reusable manufacturing satellites that could spark a new industrial revolution.”