A UK startup has unveiled a unique system for bringing spacecraft back to Earth.
The company, named Space Forge, developed the tech to provide a low-cost and sustainable way of reusing satellites. Ultimately, the startup wants the system to support in-space manufacturing, which can produce materials that can’t be made on Earth.
These “supermaterials” have transformative potential for electronics, pharmaceuticals, and alloys. Unfortunately, returning them to Earth is currently painfully complex and costly.
To solve this problem, Space Forge developed two separate components: a hover-net called Fielder and a heat shield dubbed Pridwen.
Named after King Arthur’s legendary shield, Pridwen is made of a flexible alloy fabric that can withstand harsh temperatures. It’s also reusable, unlike conventional “ablative” heatshields, which must be replaced after every flight.
To fit inside a launcher vehicle, Pridwen folds into a compact size. To protect its cargo on the return journey, the origamic-style heatshield expands. Joshua Western, the cofounder of Space Forge, describes the system as “Mary Poppins but from space.”
As the spacecraft approaches the atmosphere, Pridwen will unfurl like an umbrella to shield the satellite from the heat of re-entry. In a manner reminiscent of a shuttlecock, Pridwen can also decelerate the drop to Earth’s surface.
Then Fielder comes into play. As the satellite descends, the water-based hover net will move beneath the vehicle to soften the landing and enable a quick return to land.
According to Space Forge, the system has already completed trials including high-altitude balloon drops, sea survival, and plasma wind tunnel testing. The company is planning a launch later this year to further tests the re-entry system.
Eventually, Space Forge plans to use Pridwen and Fielder in a world-first in-orbit and return-to-Earth manufacturing service, named ForgeStar.
“Supermaterials made in space will be able to save industries on Earth enormous amounts of energy, limiting their CO2 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 parts of our plan to develop fully reusable manufacturing satellites that can kick start a new industrial revolution.”
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