Although the cost of launching satellites into space has become lower through the use of reusability, all current commercial space return vehicles use ablative heat shields which require replacement after every flight. Space Forge is revolutionizing manufacturing by the use of space to make supermaterials not possible on Earth, but the price and complexity of all existing return methods limits the range of materials that can be produced.
To ensure the return of a manufacturing satellite and its materials, a heat shield is required to prevent excessive heat transfer into a spacecraft during re-entry from Earth orbit. Current methods of protection include ablative shields which are not in general reusable like those used on the SpaceX Dragon, or silica heat tiles like the US Space Shuttle which were vulnerable to damage and required complex lift control.
Space Forge's Pridwen heat shield uses a high temperature alloy which is large enough to radiate the heat of re-entry away without burning the material; making it fully reusable. This shield is much larger than the vehicle and so folds to fit inside the launcher using a modified origami technique.
The team at Space Forge have been developing this technology for over four years with funding from the UK Space Agency and European Space Agency and have completed trials including plasma wind tunnel testing of shield samples, high altitude balloon drops, origami deployment tests and sea survival.
Many future high potential space made products such as pharmaceuticals and vaccines are particularly vulnerable to the shock forces experienced during the landing of current re-entry vehicles. Space Forge has developed a water based hover net called "Fielder" which is an uncrewed high agility water vehicle which maneuvers itself underneath a re-entry vehicle to soften the landing and enable quick return to a port.
In an Innovate UK funded project Space Forge successfully built a prototype Fielder vehicle and tested it on a lake in Reading, UK and has conducted multiple drops of scaled satellite models traveling at terminal velocity into the net prototype to measure shock levels.
To enable a reliable return service Space Forge is incorporating the Pridwen and Fielder technology into a reusable satellite platform to create a world-first in-orbit and return to Earth manufacturing service - the ForgeStar - that can be deployed from conventional launchers to provide rapid, reliable and reusable in-space infrastructure. Space Forge's ForgeStar-1A satellite will be ready for launch from the USA in 2023 when they will gather key safety and performance data to enable future landings anywhere in the world.
"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. Pridwen and Fielder are key parts of our plan to develop fully reusable manufacturing satellites that can kick start a new industrial revolution," said Andrew Bacon, CTO and co-founder of Space Forge.
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