Superconductor magnet spacecraft heat shield being developed

Nov 26, 2009 by Lin Edwards weblog

( -- European space agencies and an aerospace giant are developing a new re-entry heat shield that will use superconductor magnets to generate a magnetic field strong enough to deflect the superhot plasma formed during re-entry of returning spacecraft. They plan to test the new technology by attaching a test module to a missile and using a Russian submarine to fire it into space.

As re-enter the Earth's atmosphere at high speeds super-hot temperatures are produced through friction. Traditional heat shields use temperature-resistant ablative coatings that burn off on re-entry, or tough insulating materials, such as the tiles used on the . If the new magnetic shielding is successful it could be more reliable and make the craft lighter and easier to re-use, since it would reduce or eliminate the need for other shielding materials.

The project is being run cooperatively by the European Space Agency, EADS Astrium, and the German aerospace center, DLR (Deutschen Zentrums for Luft- und Raumfahrt). The idea is to use a superconducting coil at front of the craft to generate a strong magnetic field projecting beyond the front of the craft.

The scientists are currently assessing the superconducting coil's performance, and have not yet finalized the technical details of exactly how they will fit it into a Russian "Volan" escape capsule for the test. Also uncertain at this stage are the modifications that will be needed to the trajectory to compensate for the deflected air. Telemetry data recovery will also present challenges because the ionized gases that will form around the craft will block radio signals.

The Volan and its magnetic heat shield would be launched into a suborbital trajectory from a Russian at sea. The missile, a modified ballistic missile called Volna, would re-enter the Earth's atmospher at Mach 21 and come back to Earth in the Kamchatka peninsula, a remote region of the Russian Far East.

Detlev Konigorski of EADS Astrim, speaking in Manchester last month at the 2009 European air and conference, said he expected the test to take place three years after it is approved, and that should be some time in the next decade.

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User comments : 28

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3 / 5 (6) Nov 26, 2009
It would be a big risk to remove the passive ablative materials for this. What if something went wrong and they lost power? They'd burn up instantly.
4.5 / 5 (4) Nov 26, 2009
Losing power despite multiple back-ups is probably a smaller risk than having a ceramic heat shield crack up (due to their inherent vulnerability to microscopic defects that escaped discovery during manufacture - one reason why NASA was dumb to use ceramics for the Space shuttle).
4.5 / 5 (6) Nov 26, 2009
Step One.

Step Two: Maintaining the shield over the entire space craft during space voyage to deflect solar wind and space debris, all powered by ... ?

Nuclear is unpopular down here, but up there the power station could be assembled and commissioned separately, and then docked to the spacecraft for the voyages.

Shielding from the solar wind is one of the primary problems of even short manned voyages in space, and a concern for the Mars conquest. If this heat shield is developed successfully, it will be one less problem for future missions.

Congratulations ESA and their colleagues, not only for the R&D on this technology, but also for the collaboration between governments and corporations of different countries.

Hopefully the rest of the world is watching, and learning, from your example.
1.5 / 5 (6) Nov 26, 2009
Great idea - this could be a profound improvement on passive ablative materials that could greatly help the planned Mars conquest. Coupled with 1KW VASIMR technology, this could enable transport direct to Mars in 3.9 days.
4.8 / 5 (4) Nov 26, 2009
Step Two: Maintaining the shield over the entire space craft during space voyage to deflect solar wind and space debris, all powered by ... ?

Just guessing here, but do you need to power it once it is set up? I thought that the power would stay in a super-conducting loop more or less indefinitely unless depleted. Shouldn't the magnetic field stay on (Meissner Effect)?

So you could basically power it up on the space station, detach and drop without any additional power source. Although you might need some to keep the cooling of the super conductors intact but that could be done by lugging a few cyinders of liquid nitrogen along.
4.3 / 5 (4) Nov 26, 2009
Don't current superconductors require cooling to at least liquid nitrogen temperatures? Now your looking at cryogenic conditions close to a very hot heat shield plasma. Seems like this would add a lot of weight to any descent vehicle.
4 / 5 (3) Nov 26, 2009
"Losing power" wouldn't be an issue at all, as once a superconducting magnet is charged then no power is lost, nor does any more need to be added to the coil. The current remains within the coil indefinitely. Unless the magnet quenches.

Yyz, superconducting magnet coils are typically cooled with liquid helium (4 K), which is kept cool by liquid nitrogen.
2 / 5 (2) Nov 26, 2009
@Bob Kob: I'd agree, but on the other hand, what happens when something goes wrong with the ablative covering is that they burn up less-than-instantly.
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 26, 2009
Assuming the hot plasma formed on re-entry can be deflected by the EM field, how hot becomes the non-deflectable neutral gas layer between the deflected plasma and the outer shell of the capsule?
4 / 5 (3) Nov 26, 2009
Neutral gas will not pass, once the layer of plasma is created in front of the ship. See "plasma window".
4.3 / 5 (4) Nov 26, 2009
"Coupled with 1KW VASIMR technology, this could enable transport direct to Mars in 3.9 days."

Sorry, probes, I think you have a seriously misplaced decimal: 1 KW is a modest kitchen kettle...
3.8 / 5 (5) Nov 26, 2009
'"Losing power" wouldn't be an issue at all'. I believe it would. Even though the current in the superconductor would not have to do any work to overcome Ohmic resistance, it would have to do work to deflect the hot plasma. In my opinion this would necessitate the replenishing of the current.
4.5 / 5 (2) Nov 26, 2009
I'm with Matica. If it's doing work, it will loose energy, and require a continuous power supply. The same principle applies to superconducting motors.
2 / 5 (2) Nov 27, 2009
matica,nkalanaga: check out the meissner effect on wikipedia
3 / 5 (3) Nov 27, 2009
Neutral gas will not pass, once the layer of plasma is created in front of the ship. See "plasma window".
Very interesting, indeed. But:
generating the window consumes around 20 kW per inch (8 kW/cm) in the diameter of a round window

2 / 5 (2) Nov 27, 2009
It would be a big risk to remove the passive ablative materials for this. What if something went wrong and they lost power? They'd burn up instantly.

The ablative layer might be able to be kept as a backup if it is so much lighter than tiles as long as the magnet kept it from burning off each time.
2.4 / 5 (5) Nov 27, 2009
I cannot believe that this article is stating FRICTION causes heat on re-entring.
The cause of heat is called RAM pressure and it is due to the extremely. compressed gas in the front face of any body moving with a high enough speed!
Please, just Google Ram pressure!
5 / 5 (1) Nov 27, 2009
Where are they going to get so much power? Would it possible to get the heat from the RAM pressure and convert to power which eventually to the magnetic field that reflect the heat? Amazing!
4 / 5 (1) Nov 27, 2009
Do you mean MHD, lee ??

Either way, IMHO, you must physically interact with the plasma sheath in ways a heat-shield is trying to avoid...

Where to get the power to charge up the toroid ? Perhaps by braking from orbit using a conductive tether cutting Earth's mag-field ??
3 / 5 (1) Nov 27, 2009
If it is doing work, it will consume energy, which has to be replaced. Otherwise you have perpetual motion, which would be the biggest news in physics history.
4 / 5 (2) Nov 27, 2009
Very interesting, indeed. But:
generating the window consumes around 20 kW per inch (8 kW/cm) in the diameter of a round window

Most of that energy would be required to energize plasma itself. Magnetic confinement does not require so much energy. In our disputed case, energetic plasma is free of charge.
3 / 5 (1) Nov 27, 2009
So.. how does this work dynamically? First you need to compress gas, heat it up to plasma, which then interacts with the magnetic field, presumeably moving the zone of plasmification out from the impactor surface. I just wonder if this really would sustain a plasma umbrella, it's hard to imagine :) Would love to see a FEM analysis on this!! Anyone? :D
3 / 5 (1) Nov 28, 2009
i think you are imagining that the shield device would create a plasma independantly of the re-entry environment. I dont think this is the case.
I suspect the shielding effect would only become apparent when the crafts ram pressure from descent causes ionization of the air it is moving.
Think polystyrene bean-bag beans being thrown into a fan, rather than umbrella made of the beans.
3 / 5 (1) Nov 28, 2009
There is another space craft in construction, not development:

3 / 5 (1) Nov 29, 2009

If this new tech get successful, the craft will be really lighter and easier to re-use?
I think the traditional heat shields made of tiles are still be remained when imergency condition appears.

The conditons would be include radio signals are block by the ionized gases,
or the trajectory are affected by the deflected air.

If you are very interesting in the craft stucture, pls read some books found at here : http://www.buyusi...shuttle/

Anyway,I hope the project can achieve success. if this happens, we have a new choice at least. By using supercondution magnets to deflect the superhot plasma caused by fliction, this is a great test.
I hope the coils or shield would be installed in the Russion escape capsule and get acchivements!

1 / 5 (1) Nov 30, 2009
@earemir - Thanks for the link to VASIMR space craft. This could enable transport to Mars in 3.9 hours without a heatshield.
not rated yet Nov 30, 2009
@probes: I've seen you quote that "3.9" figure many, many times, but where did it come from? Can you link a reference, or a calculation you did to arrive at this number? Also your first post here said "3.9 days" while the second said "3.9 hours" - which is it? Have you taken into account the extreme accelerations necessary to speed up from Earth and slow down to Mars, and if they would kill the occupants?
not rated yet Nov 30, 2009
HA!! 3.9 Days? let alone hours?!
VASIMR is all about efficiency, not speed.
Its about replacing expensive heavy fuel with cheap light fuel.
Im cautious to quote wikipedia, but they seem to have some "realistic" numbers
like a typical VASIMR taking 14 days from Lunar orbit to earth.