Inflation set to rocket

An inflatable re-entry vehicle that could be used to return cargo and even astronauts from the International Space Station is to undergo flight tests next month.

If the tests are successful the lightweight spacecraft could be used to transport payloads from the ISS within two to three years, according to Dr Stephan Walther, chief executive of developer Return & Rescue Space Systems (RRSS), a joint venture between EADS-Space Transportation and the Russian Babakin Space Centre.

The craft, which resembles a shuttlecock, is being developed with support from ESA as a cheaper alternative to the US Shuttle for transporting cargo from the ISS. It could also be used as an emergency rescue system for crews, the company claims.

In the flight test at the end of September, the craft will be launched on a Volna rocket from a Russian submarine in the Barents Sea, near Murmansk in north-west Russia. The rocket will reach 202km before the re-entry vehicle separates for its 20-minute journey back to Earth. It can be folded up for launch into orbit, reducing the amount of space it takes up. Before re-entry it is inflated using nitrogen gas.

The inflatable braking shield consists of a pressurised core covered by various layers of thermal insulation and flexible ablative material to protect it during re-entry. The shield will slow the vehicle down to subsonic speeds while flying through the atmospheric layers. To prepare for landing after re-entry, a second cascade is inflated in place of a parachute, reducing the vehicle’s speed further to around 5-10m/s.

Due to its low weight, the vehicle could double or triple the entry mass for robotic missions, said the company. It could also be used to land spacecraft on other planets with an atmosphere, said Walther. ‘In principle it is a very easy system, and you can adapt it to all vehicles to get back to Earth, or any planet with an atmosphere.’