Heat shields are essentially used as the brakes to stop spacecraft from burning up and crashing on entry and reentry into a planet's atmosphere. Current spacecraft heat shield methods include huge inflatables and mechanically deployed structures that are often heavy and complicated to use.

A CubeSat-sized system (left) and the cargo bay.

A new heat shield design utilizes centrifugal forces that stiffen lightweight materials to prevent burn-up. The lightweight prototype is also self-regulating, so there is no need for any additional machinery, reducing the weight of spacecraft even further and allowing for low-cost scientific research and recovery of rocket parts.

The flexible heat shield is shaped like a skirt and spins like a sycamore seed. Planets with atmospheres, such as Earth and Mars, allow spacecraft to utilize aerodynamic drag to slow down, and the prototype's design uses this to enable atmospheric entry. This is similar to high-board diving, where the drag from water decelerates the diver's body before reaching the bottom of the swimming pool.

The fast entry into Earth's atmosphere generates so much heat — more than 10,000 °C — that the air around the spacecraft can burn into plasma. For safe atmospheric entry, spacecraft need a front end, or shield, that tolerates high heat as well as an aerodynamic shape that generates drag. But unlike Earth, the Martian atmosphere is very thin.

To carry heavy equipment and astronauts, a high drag area is needed. When entering Earth's or Mars’ atmospheres, spacecraft require highly designed shields to avoid burn-up, generate drag, and support heavy loads. The prototype is made of a flexible material that allows for easy storage onboard spacecraft. This material, while foldable, is strong and has a high temperature tolerance. The shield is also stitched along a special pattern that allows it to spin up during flight, inducing centrifugal force. Since the heat shield is lightweight and flexible enough for use on smaller satellites, research could be made easier and cheaper. The heat shield would also help save cost in recovery missions, as its high induced drag reduces the amount of fuel burned upon re-entry.

For more information, contact Jordan Kenny at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; +44 (0)161 275 8257.

Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the March, 2019 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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