New origami heat shield will enable the reuse of spacecraft in future

A new origami-inspired heat shield is expected to be tested in a real-world setup later this year.
Mrigakshi Dixit
Illustration of heat shield.
Illustration of heat shield.

ESA/Space Forge 

Origami has been transforming space engineering. It is an ancient Japanese paper folding art that transforms the material without changing its weight. For example, the mirrors of the James Webb Space Telescope are so large that they had to be folded in an origami style to fit inside the rocket for launch.

Now, a new origami-inspired heat shield is set to enter the space world later this year. It will be tested soon with a spacecraft, where the shield will unfurl like a shuttlecock to protect it during the atmospheric reentry. 

“As a spacecraft commences its return to Earth and encounters the atmosphere, its orbital velocity gets converted into such high heat fluxes that an unprotected spacecraft will simply burn up. Which is where heat shields come in,” explained the official statement

The heat shield has been named Pridwen after King Arthur's iconic shield. It is being developed by the Cardiff-based start-up Space Forge and funded by the European Space Agency (ESA). 

Most of today's spacecraft heat shields rely on ablation mechanisms, which remove unwanted heat by burning the shield's pieces. This prevents the satellites from being reused. 

The newly constructed heat shield has been designed to radiate heat rather than completely burn off during reentry. Its large size is intended to reflect the intense heat of atmospheric reentry effectively. According to ESA, it is covered with high-temperature alloy fabric, spreading heat flux across it. 

Furthermore, the shuttlecock-style shield will enable the spacecraft to soft land, which could be caught on the net, obviating the need for a parachute. The spacecraft and heatshield can thus be reused again as per the need.

Space Forge also aims to use this technology for in-orbit manufacturing in the future. “The company has developed Pridwen as part of a larger vision of in-orbit manufacturing of high-value goods such as pharmaceuticals, superconductors, and superalloys, to be returned to Earth on a routine basis,” noted the release. 

The developers have already begun testing the heat shield with multiple drop tests from an altitude of more than 10 miles (17 km). The first Pridwen heat shield will fly aboard the company's inaugural ForgeStar-1A mission after undergoing numerous tests.

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