Origami in Orbit: Reusable Heat Shield Transforms Spacecraft Reentries

Origami Heat Shield

Pridwen is a novel origami-based heat shield designed for atmospheric reentry from space. The reusable design of Pridwen, named after King Arthur’s legendary shield, is anticipated to protect the spacecraft from burning up during reentry by distributing the high heat flux across its high-temperature alloy fabric surface, which allows it to gradually radiate the heat away. Credit: Space Forge

ESA is set to test Pridwen, an innovative, reusable, origami-based heat shield, which uses radiation instead of ablation to protect spacecraft during atmospheric reentry. Developed by Space Forge, Pridwen aims to enable satellites to land without parachutes, supporting plans for in-orbit manufacturing and routine returns to Earth. The first mission, ForgeStar-1A, is planned for later this year.

A novel origami-based heat shield developed with European Space Agency (ESA) support is planned to be tested with an actual atmospheric reentry from space. Named Pridwen, after the legendary shield of King Arthur, this reusable design will spring out before a spacecraft reenters the atmosphere.

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.

Standard ‘ablative’ heat shields remove unwanted heat by having pieces of the shield gradually burn off. Instead of ablation, Pridwen relies on radiation: its high-temperature alloy fabric has a sufficiently high surface area that the heat flux can spread evenly across it to gradually radiate away.

The shuttlecock-style Pridwen shield will also serve to slow down a satellite sufficiently so that it can survive landing without a parachute. Its maker, Space Forge in Cardiff, UK, plans to capture satellites with a hover net.

The heat shield has undergone multiple drop tests from as high as 17 km and practiced net captures of test items falling at terminal velocity. The company has developed Pridwen as part of a larger vision of in-orbit manufacturing of high-value goods such as pharmaceuticals, superconductors and super alloys, to be returned to Earth on a routine basis.

The first Pridwen heat shield is planned for flight aboard the company’s inaugural ForgeStar-1A mission later this year.

The project has been supported through ESA’s General Support Technology Programme – readying promising technologies for space and commercial markets – as well as the UK Space Agency.

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