While It’s become more cost-effective to launch satellites to orbit, bringing them back to Earth intact has proven much trickier. Until now.
A mini-manufacturing satellite that can return to Earth aboard an origami-like heat shield could help revolutionise the manufacture of super-materials in space, according to a British start-up.
Welsh company Space Forge has developed a platform for microgravity production, research, and experimentation; with novel electronics and pharmaceuticals among those industries which could benefit from in-space manufacture.
The start-up has built what it calls a planet-friendly reusable re-entry system, which will enable the low-cost and reliable return of satellites to Earth.
The hope is that the new tech will kick-start in-orbit manufacturing of materials that either can't be made on Earth, or that are too expensive to make.
"At Space Forge we're leveraging the benefits of space to make new super-materials that just aren't possible to make on the ground,” Space Forge CTO, Andrew Bacon, told Reuters.
How does the tech work?
The Space Forge system consists of a nano-factory satellite equipped with a high-temperature alloy heat shield that also slows the descent upon re-entry.
The shield unfurls like an umbrella that keeps the spacecraft from burning up.
"It's sort of like an unfurlable umbrella that's opening out to being much, much bigger than the satellite itself but it retains the strength required to keep it intact with the strong winds that you're going to experience and the heating you’ll experience during re-entry," he said.
The heat shield, named Pridwen after King Arthur's shield, is large enough to radiate the heat of re-entry away without burning the material, making it fully reusable.
They’ve also developed a catching vehicle that gives the satellite a soft landing when it splashes down, securing it in a net before it hits the sea.
Twelve small, electric hovercrafts support the "Fielder" catching vehicle, which carries a large net and is designed to manoeuvre itself into position to protect the satellite and its cargo as it lands back on earth.
"It's a problem nobody's tried to solve before, in terms of catching a satellite as it’s falling," Bacon said.
Cost of launch falling but not recovery
"So, new problems require new thinking but it's always good to go back to the innovations of the past and see what you can bring forward to the new products of the future".
The cost of launching satellites into space has fallen significantly in recent years but the same cannot be said of bringing anything back from space according to Bacon.
"The kind of materials that people are looking at for space manufacture are, if you consider the launch price being somewhere around €5,760 per kilogram, there are certain materials that are bordering millions of dollars per kilogram," Bacon explained.
"So, it is starting to make economic sense to be able to go into space and come back down again".
Space Forge says their reusable satellite system will be ready for launch this year.
They say it will be the world's first in-orbit manufacturing service for the research and production of new supermaterials that aim to tackle some of the biggest problems faced by modern society.
For more on this story, watch the video in the media player above.