New satellite made from CORK can help smaller spacecraft intact enter the Earth’s atmosphere by directing heat to parts of the hull designed to burn and flake off
- The ESA is launching a small satellite with cork nose from the ISS on Wednesday
- The satellite gradually descends back to Earth over the course of six months
- The engineers at ESA hope that the cork nose will help the satellite survive the violent journey
This week, the European Space Agency will begin testing a new type of spacecraft made partly of cork in the hope of finding a safer way to re-enter the atmosphere.
The ship is called ‘QubeSat for aerothermodynamic research and measurements of ablation’ and consists of a series of cubes stacked on top of each other that are approximately one foot high.
The main axis is made of titanium that is covered with silicon carbide.
On Wednesday, ESA launches a small satellite from ESA on a six-month journey to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere
The satellite is powered by four thin strips of solar panels that fan out behind it like a shuttle, according to a blog post on the ESA website.
The QubeSat originally reached the ISS on December 5 as part of the cargo being transported by SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, and this Wednesday it will be launched on an orbit that will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere within six months.
To help the QubeSat survive this process, ESA engineers designed it with a cork nose that they hope will protect it as it slowly descends through the Earth’s atmosphere.
Atmospheric return is a violent process and most smaller satellites do not survive the journey.
With temperatures that can exceed thousands of degrees Celsius, a satellite the size of the QubeSat would probably have been blown apart and burned upon re-entry, but the ESA believes that the use of cork in front of its nose could help it survive the journey.
The nose of the satellite is made of specially treated cork, of which ESA engineers hope that the satellite will remain intact during descent by directing all the heat to the nose, where the cork absorbs and burns off
After burning, the cork’s nose will be charred and then peel off while the main body remains intact – at least that is the theory that ESA’s engineers hope to play out
The cork is designed to dissipate unwanted heat from the satellite’s main body as it descends through the atmosphere, swelling the material first, then catching fire and carbonizing.
The charred cork flakes away and reduces the amount of heat absorbed by the rest of the satellite, in a process called ablation.
This approach has been used to help larger capsules re-enter the atmosphere, but it has rarely been attempted with a vessel as small as the QubeSat.
The satellite is approximately one foot long and is powered by four strips of solar panels that fan out at the rear
The satellite was delivered to ISS on December 5 in the Dragon capsule from SapceX
The ESA points out that the cork used is not the standard material that you would find on pinboards or in champagne bottles.
It is a custom mix made by Amorim, a Portuguese companion that specializes in the industrial use of the material.
The company also helps to turn it into a building material for houses and a core material for surfboard.
WHAT IS THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION?
The international space station ISS is a scientific and technical laboratory of $ 100 billion (£ 80 billion) that runs 250 km above the earth.
It has been permanently manned since November 2000 by rotating crews of astronauts and cosmonauts.
The ISS International Space Station is an international research center with funding from Europe, Japan, the US, Russia and others
Research on board the ISS often requires one or more of the unusual conditions in a low Earth orbit, such as low gravity or oxygen.
ISS studies have investigated human, space-medicine, life sciences, natural sciences, astronomy and meteorology research.
The US space agency Nasa spends around $ 3 billion (£ 2.4 billion) a year on the space station program, a funding level endorsed by the Trump government and the congress.
A commission from the US House of Representatives overseeing NASA has begun investigating whether the program should be extended beyond 2024.
Alternatively, the money could be used to accelerate planned human space initiatives to the moon and Mars.