Retired satellites typically burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, never again seeing the light of day. However, a Welsh design firm named Space Forge is developing a foldable heat shield in the ongoing effort make satellites reusable, and the company wants to test the concept in orbit later this year.
It’s called Pridwen, named in honor of King Arthur’s legendary shield. Space Forge announced the new foldable heat shield earlier this week in a press release, saying Pridwen is engineered with an alloy capable of withstanding the harsh temperatures caused by the friction of plummeting through Earth’s atmosphere.
The company has been developing this technology for over four years thanks to funding from the U.K. Space Agency and the European Space Agency (ESA). The shield is designed to unfold before reentry in the attempt to direct heat away from the satellite, allowing the spacecraft to slow down and descend safely back to Earth for reuse.SpaceX revolutionized the rocket industry by reusing its Falcon 9 boosters; Space Forge is hoping to do something similar for satellites, which are typically wasted at the end of their lives.
Space Forge is also developing an autonomous water-based vehicle called Fielder to catch incoming spacecraft in its quest to create in-orbit manufacturing infrastructure. “Supermaterials made in space will be able to save industries on Earth enormous amounts of energy, limiting their [carbon dioxide] emissions in a way their terrestrial counterparts can never match,” Space Forge CTO and co-founder Andrew Bacon said in the press release. “Pridwen and Fielder are key parts of our plan to develop fully reusable manufacturing satellites that can kick start a new industrial revolution.”
Space Forge has tested the Pridwen technology using wind tunnels and by dropping prototypes from high-altitude balloons, but the company has plans to test the shield in orbit with the ForgeStar-1A satellite, scheduled to launch from the U.S. later this year. ForgeStar is Space Forge’s concept for a reusable platform that is slated to serve as an in-orbit manufacturing hub for clients, and Pridwen and Fielder will be crucial parts of it. In 2021, Space Forge raised $10.2 million to operate ForgeStar, and is looking for a headquarters location in the U.S., according to SpaceNews.
Foldable satellite technology is becoming increasingly popular, with the purpose being to prevent spacecraft from burning up, but to also keep Earth’s orbit clear of space debris. Germany-based High Performance Space Structure Systems tested the Drag Augmentation Deorbiting System earlier this year, for example. The system is a large sail that opens behind a satellite to increase drag, pushing a satellite out of its orbit and into the atmosphere to burn up.