Recently, inflatable heat shields have been the focus of a joint venture between the European Space Agency and the International Science and Technology Centre in Moscow. The system was developed to return small payloads from the International Space Station, independently of the Space Shuttle. Once fully developed, it can be used as a ready-made, multi-use reentry system suitable for any number of unmanned payloads.
The Inflatable Re-Entry and Descent Technology (IRDT) module, when inflated, looks like a large flattened cone with flanges along its outer rim, similar to a shuttlecock, with its payload just inside the cone’s tip. The inflatable material is densely packed with multiple layers under high pressure, with inner layers able to take up the heat burden of the outer layers and help dissipate the accumulated heat. The IRDT module’s shape is also designed to act as an aerobrake, making the use of a parachute redundant, at least for any unmanned applications of the device.
Two modules of the IRDT system were tested in re-entry trials using a Russian Soyuz/Fregat launcher in 2000, with modest success. Further development and research continues.
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