Space Forge reveals their patent protected design of a planet-friendly reusable reentry system, which will enable the low cost and reliable return of satellites to Earth.

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 revolutionising 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 un-crewed high agility water vehicle which manoeuvres 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 travelling at terminal velocity into the net prototype to measure shock levels. 

To enable a reliable return service Space Forge are 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 & performance data to enable future landings anywhere in the world. 

The Cardiff-based space tech company, founded in 2018 by Co-Founders Joshua Western and Andrew Bacon is making space work for humanity by harnessing the power of microgravity; offering an on-demand service to advance the expansion of the in-space manufacturing market for the research and production of new super materials that aim to tackle some of the biggest problems faced by modern society. 

Lead Heat Shield Engineer, Ana Paula Castro de Paula Nunes comments on the announcement: “Our heat shield is a complete rethink of return technology and this concept has never been tried in space before. The impact of burning up satellites and ablative heat shields in the atmosphere is going to be a future ecological crisis and so we wanted to start from scratch to prioritise zero emissions and reusability from the start."

“The shield has a unique benefit that its deployed “shuttlecock” shape is large and stable enough to remove the need for a separate parachute and flotation device on the returning Space vehicle; removing two of the key challenges for ablative return vehicles. We are currently designing it to land on water for safety but are planning for on-shore landings so we can land anywhere in the world without a runway."

Capture System Engineer, Radu Tudorache comments on the announcement:

“Astronauts often describe the landing of re-entry vehicles as “like being in a car crash” as the shock levels are so high. Whilst we have shown that many of the key in-space manufactured products such as super alloys and semiconductors can survive such a landing, more fragile items like protein chains used for medicines and research cannot survive without being frozen or glued - which reduces their value."

“Our Fielder capture system enables soft landing for re-entry vehicles like the ForgeStar to protect fragile payloads and also reduce stress on the vehicle; reducing the refurbishment cost in a similar manner to the barges used by SpaceX. In the future we see Fielder technology as a key multiplier for the Space to Earth manufacturing supply chain, enabling rapid delivery of space made products to our customers, in hours not the days it currently takes. Its use could also be expanded to catching other space objects such as rocket stages and deorbited satellites for recycling."

Andrew Bacon, CTO and Co-founder of Space Forge, said, 

Pridwen and Fielder are key parts of our plan to develop fully reusable manufacturing satellites that can kick start a new industrial revolution. 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. We can also attach Pridwen to other satellites and land them in Fielder nets to bring them back intact to their manufacturers, eliminating space debris and allowing them to be refurbished or recycled to save money and limit their ecological impact. With our innovations, we can now unlock the full potential to help make space work for humanity.”