Since the dawn of the Space Age, considerable progress has been made with launch vehicles. From single stage to multistage rockets and spaceplanes to reusable launch vehicles, we have become very good at sending payloads to space.
But when it comes to returning payloads to Earth, our methods really haven’t evolved much at all. Some 70 years later, we are still relying on air friction, heatshields, and parachutes and landing at sea more often than not.
Luckily, there are many solutions that NASA and commercial space companies are currently investigating. For example, SpaceWorks Enterprises, Inc (SEI) is currently working on an orbital delivery system known as Reentry Device (RED) capsules. With support provided by NASA, they are gearing up for a test run this October where one of their capsules gets dropped from an altitude of 30 kilometers (19 miles).
Based in Atlanta, Georgia, Spaceworks specializes in developing state-of-the-art aerospace technology, from the early design phase to rapid prototyping and flight demonstration. Their specialties include advanced concept analysis, systems engineering, product development, and economic consulting. Their product catalog includes technologies ranging from satellite internet-connected sensors and spacecraft to hypersonic flight testbeds and Reentry Device (RED) capsules.
For the sake of developing their RED technology, which includes the RED-25 and RED-4U, SpaceWorks is gearing up for a high-altitude drop test. This will consist of them releasing a RED-4U capsule — designated Suborbital Test Vehicle 2 (STV-2) — from an altitude of 30,000 meters (100,000 feet) and monitoring it as it makes an autonomous landing. For this test, they have teamed up with Earthly Dynamics LLC (EDC) and Aerial Delivery Solutions LLC (ADS).
These tests are made possible thanks to funding provided through NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program. As part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD), this program rapidly demonstrates space exploration and commercial space technologies through suborbital testing. With the help of industry flight providers, the program aims to advance NASA mission capabilities and commercial applications.
The RED-4U, the first step in their RED program, is a sample return capsule that will allow for the safe delivery of tissue samples and other materials related to microgravity research in orbit. The capsule measures 53 cm (around 21 inches) in diameter, has a gross mass of 28 kg (62 pounds), and can return payloads of up to 6 kg (13 pounds) from orbit. Beyond this capsule, the company hopes to develop REDs with propulsive stages that will perform a more diverse set of missions.
These capsules are designed to provide on-demand down mass delivery capabilities from locations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), like the International Space Station (ISS). However, the long-term aim is to enable orbital deliveries from the many platforms expected to be in orbit in the coming decades. These include proposals for habitats in LEO, commercial space stations, research facilities, and other orbital infrastructure.
“Our RED devices are instrumental to advancing a space-based commercial economy where micro-gravity experiments and in-space manufacturing require a low-cost solution for rapid, safe, and reliable payload return from space,” said Tyler Kunsa, the RED Program Manager at SpaceWorks, in a company press release. “We are thrilled to work with the teams at NASA, EDC, and ADS to continue to develop this first-of-its-kind reentry capsule.”
The key to making precision maneuvers with the RED-4U is a state-of-the-art parafoil system developed by EDC and manufactured by ADS. It is known as a ram-air-parafoil, a concept that NASA began researching in the mid-1990s to develop an autonomous recovery system for spacecraft. The system was intended to deploy at an altitude of 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) during the final stages of re-entry and allow for precision landings.
The key components for this proposed autonomous system included GPS guidance for navigation, a flight control computer, an electronic compass, a yaw rate gyro, and an onboard data recorder. Said Dr. Benjamin León, Co-PI & Research Engineer at EDC:
“For years, Earthly Dynamics has pushed to advance low-cost, reliable payload delivery using guided parafoils. Today, we are excited to supply the first commercial in-canopy flight control system for guided parafoils on SpaceWorks’ RED capsules. Our in-canopy, bleed-air flight control system, paired with a robust parachute from Aerial Delivery Systems, has the range and precision landing capabilities needed to reduce the landing ellipse for LEO payload return.”
The last round of tests of the RED-4U took place on November 19, 2020, outside the town of Dunnellon, located about 130 kilometers (80 miles) northwest of ADS headquarters in Orlando, Florida. These tests consisted of the STV-2 making three airplane drops and precision landings from altitudes of approximately 2,285 meters (7,500 feet). The next test of the STV-2 is scheduled to take place sometime in October 2021 and will be hosted by the Near Space Corporation (NSC) at their launch facilities in Madras, Oregon.
The STV-2 will also carry a special payload during this mission provided by the Georgia Institute of Technology – the student-made STRATOS 1U Cubesat test platform. The STRATOS CubeSat will obtain real-time flight data and telemetry throughout the deployment and recovery of the RED capsule. Said Dr. Glenn Lightsey, the Director of the Space Systems Design Lab (SSDL) and Director of the Center for Space Technology And Research (CSTAR) at Georgia Tech:
“This project provides an outstanding experience for our students to work with professional engineers on a flight project with a demanding schedule and hardware integration task. The skills developed in projects like this one outside the classroom enable our students to contribute at a higher level when they transition to professional careers. We are thrilled to be a part of the team.”
If all goes well with this round of testing, SpaceWorks will be moving ahead with developing their more complex capsules – such as the RED-25 and the proposed RED-50. These larger, heavier capsules measure one and 1.3 meters (three and 4.25 feet) in diameter, have a gross mass of 117 and 220 kg (258 and 485 pounds), and can accommodate payloads of 25 and 50 kg (55 and 110 pounds), respectively. Combined with the infrastructure making it cheaper for us to send payloads to orbit, this technology will help in the “commercialization of LEO” and ensure humanity’s future in space.