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European Consortium to develop inflatable heat shield

Posted on 17 Jun 2024. Edited by: John Hunter. Read 402 times.
European Consortium to develop inflatable heat shieldA European consortium led by Spanish company Elecnor Deimos is collaborating to demonstrate the feasibility of developing an inflatable heat shield (IHS) for recovering rocket stages from space. If successful, the system could also protect precious cargo during re-entry and descent to Earth and could eventually be used for Mars missions.

ICARUS (Inflatable Concept Aeroshell for the Recovery of a re-Usable launcher Stage) has received 10 million euros of funding by the European Commission (EC) under the Horizon Europe programme and is a follow-on project to EFESTO-1 (3 million euros) and to EFESTO-2 (2 million euros), funded by Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe first-batch, respectively.

ICARUS consists of three phases. During the first phase, the consortium will complete the mission and system design along with on-the-ground maturation of key technologies. During the second phase, it will carry out a flight test on board a sounding rocket with a meaningful-scale demonstrator of an IHS in hypersonic conditions. When inside the rocket, the IHS demonstrator will have an approximate diameter of 50cm and when inflated the shield will measure about 3m in diameter. Depending on the application, a commercial full-scale version could have a diameter of 10m diameter when inflated.

The third phase consists of post-flight analysis of data and information collected during the mission — this will allow engineers to understand the behaviour of the spacecraft, to evaluate the performance of the technologies on board of it, and to verify the capabilities of the simulation models to predict both.

Partners and affiliations

The ICARUS project, estimated to take about four years to complete, will start this month and a demonstrator test date is planned for 2028. The consortium is led by Deimos playing the role of programmatic management and systems engineering and integration, and includes the following partners and affiliations: German Aerospace Centre (DLR-MORABA and DLR AS-HYP), responsible for flight test, launch campaign execution, and the vehicle’s health monitoring system; Italian Aerospace Research Centre (CIRA), responsible for the vehicle’s thermal protection system; French Aerospace Research Centre (ONERA), responsible the vehicle’s aeroshape definition and pre- and post-flight characterisation; Pangaia Grado Zero (Italy), contributing to the development of innovative health monitoring sensors; Politecnico di Torino (Italy), responsible for dissemination and communication; Atmos Space Cargo (Germany), responsible for the inflatable structure; HDES Service and Engineering (The Netherlands), responsible for the inflation system; and Demcon Advanced Mechatronics (The Netherlands), contributing to the development of innovative health monitoring sensors.

Deimos CEO Simone Centuori said: “This is one of the most innovative projects of the decade encompassing a group of leading research organisations and companies. From EFESTO-1 to ICARUS, the development period is covering a total of nine years and 15 million euros of funding. ICARUS is a key technological enabler for Europe, which will revolutionise European re-entry technologies, supporting applications like recovering rocket stages and hypersonic entry on Mars.

“ICARUS also signifies a great future contribution to space sustainability. With its potential to return launch vehicles and satellites elements safely to Earth, it could be a gamechanger for the space-launch industry. Collaborating with so many fantastic partners shows the power and potential of the European space landscape and the trust of all the partners in Deimos’s capability as project lead. This is a fantastic endeavour to use our expertise as a mission and system integrator to forge the various technologies and systems into a working product.”

Manufacturing and testing expertise

Atmos Space Cargo CEO Sebastian Klaus added: “Inflatable Atmospheric Decelerators are at the cutting edge of re-entry technology, and Atmos Space Cargo has been trusted by DEIMOS and its consortium partners to design and manufacture the inflatable structure. ICARUS aims to become the first flight demonstration of this new technology for the European Union. Supporting this endeavour with our manufacturing and testing expertise is perfectly in line with our vision of returning any type of cargo from space, at any scale.”

Professor Ali Gülhan, head of the department for supersonic and hypersonic technology at DLR´s Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology, said: “To plan and integrate such a demanding payload for a sounding rocket flight experiment, including the respective wind tunnel testing in advance, will be a challenging and therefore exciting endeavour with a groundbreaking outcome. Together with our partners at DLR´s Mobile Rocket Base (MORABA) we will contribute with our long-lasting experience to make the flight experiment a big success.”

Inflatable heat shields, also known as inflatable atmospheric decelerators (IADs), could be a fundamental new way to decelerate and protect various space systems during re-entry and descent. As a result, they could be ideal for the expansion of commercial space transportation technologies and services aiming to recover and reuse launcher stages and other space cargo. Integrating ad-hoc guidance, navigation and control (GNC) systems would further enhance these capabilities and allow the possibility of precision-landing applications on Earth and Mars.

Inflatable heat shields are deemed a gamechanger due to intrinsic key features such as low re-entry ballistic coefficient, which can reduce mechanical and aerothermal loads during re-entry. While deployable capsules can be easily accommodated into the launch vehicles in a folded configuration and then deployed when needed. Due to this combination, they can be used to recover and potentially reuse segments of various space systems such as rocket stages. This makes them more sustainable as they will have less impact on the environment.