EU Funds Pioneering Inflatable Heat Shield for Space Re-entry

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Insider Brief:

  • The European Union has allocated €15 million to the ICARUS consortium led by Elecnor Deimos to develop an inflatable heat shield.
  • The funding, part of the Horizon Europe program, will support a comprehensive three-phase plan to bring this innovative technology to life.
  • The project is set to kick off in June 2024, with the demonstrator test planned for 2028.

The European Union has allocated €15 million to the ICARUS consortium led by Elecnor Deimos to develop an inflatable heat shield (IHS). The project aims to revolutionize the recovery of rocket stages and pave the way for Mars missions by developing and testing an IHS that can be used to recover rocket stages and protect cargo during re-entry. The funding, part of the Horizon Europe program, will support a comprehensive three-phase plan to bring this innovative technology to life.

ICARUS, which stands for “Inflatable Concept Aeroshell for the Recovery of a re-Usable Launcher Stage,” involves several industry partners, including Germany’s Atmos Space Cargo, the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), and space research centers from Italy (CIRA) and France (ONERA).

The first phase of ICARUS will focus on designing the mission and system while advancing key technologies on the ground. In the second phase, the consortium will test the IHS using a sounding rocket to validate its performance under hypersonic conditions. The shield, with an initial diameter of about 50 cm, will inflate to approximately 3 meters. Depending on its use, a full-scale IHS could reach a diameter of up to 10 meters.

The final phase involves analyzing the data collected during the flight to assess the spacecraft’s performance and the accuracy of simulation models. This data will help refine the technology and ensure its reliability for future missions.

The project is set to kick off in June 2024, with the demonstrator test planned for 2028. Deimos leads the consortium, overseeing program management and systems integration. Other key players include DLR, responsible for flight testing and vehicle health monitoring, and CIRA, focusing on the thermal protection system.

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According to Simone Centuori, CEO of Deimos, ICARUS represents a significant advancement for Europe in space re-entry technologies. The project highlights the potential for inflatable heat shields to enhance space sustainability by enabling the safe return and reuse of rocket stages and other space components.

Inflatable heat shields, or inflatable atmospheric decelerators (IADs), offer a promising new method for protecting spacecraft during re-entry. Their ability to reduce mechanical and thermal stress makes them ideal for commercial space transportation and precision landing on Earth and Mars.

Image credit: Elecnor Deimos

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