Welsh Space Start-Up Unveils Revolutionary ‘Shuttlecock’ Heatshield for Satellite Reusability
A pioneering space start-up from Wales has developed an innovative heatshield that enables the reusability of satellites upon their return to Earth. The heatshield takes the form of a large, flexible sheet that can be compactly folded during launch and then expanded, resembling a shuttlecock, to safeguard the spacecraft during re-entry.
Space Forge, based in Cardiff, envisions a future where a fleet of “mini-factories” operates in orbit, manufacturing high-value materials and components for industries such as electronics and pharmaceuticals. However, the successful implementation of this vision requires the satellites and their products to withstand the intense heat experienced during atmospheric re-entry.
To address this challenge, the company has devised a mechanism called Pridwen, named after the legendary shield carried by King Arthur. Pridwen’s large size allows efficient dissipation of heat energy exceeding temperatures of a thousand degrees, while its foldable design facilitates easy stowage within a rocket. Notably, Pridwen is intended for repeated use, which sets it apart from traditional heatshield systems that typically erode or ablate upon re-entry and require replacement. While some fully reusable systems exist, like the silica tiles on the previous US space shuttle, they can be delicate and complex to handle.
Pridwen plays a central role in Space Forge’s business model, as the company aims to fly its mini-factories, each roughly the size of a microwave oven, multiple times to ensure economic viability. Chief Technology Officer Andrew Bacon emphasized the importance of reusability for the entire spacecraft. The development of Pridwen has been ongoing for several years, receiving funding support from the UK and European space agencies. While certain aspects of the shield’s construction remain commercially confidential, prototypes have undergone rigorous testing in laboratories and high-temperature wind tunnels. A model is currently being constructed for a scheduled flight in 2023.
Space Forge’s ambitions extend beyond Earth’s orbit, with plans to utilize Pridwen technology for material retrieval from the Moon and asteroids. The company also envisions potential applications for landing on planetary bodies with atmospheres, such as Mars, Venus, or Titan.
Surviving the intense heat of re-entry is only one aspect of satellite reusability; a soft landing is equally crucial. Space Forge anticipates that Pridwen will decelerate the descending satellite to a point where it can be captured in a net. The company has conducted drop tests from altitude to practice this landing technique. Hover drones maneuvering a mesh across the sea surface are intended to capture the falling satellite.
Space Forge finds itself in a competitive race with numerous global companies aiming to harness the weightless conditions of orbit for producing valuable goods. One notable example is the creation of unique metal alloys with intriguing electrical or chemical properties, which can be challenging to achieve in a gravity-dominated environment.
Earlier this year, Space Forge’s attempt to test a segment of its re-entry system was thwarted when the satellite intended for the task was destroyed during the ill-fated Virgin Orbit launch from Cornwall in January. The company’s next opportunity will arise with a rocket launch from the United States in the coming months.