Image: Through the heat barrier

June 21, 2018, European Space Agency
Credit: CIRA

ESA's next CubeSat mission seen enduring the scorching heat of simulated atmospheric reentry inside the world's largest plasma wind tunnel.

Equipped with a cork-based heatshield, titanium side walls and silicon carbide deployable panels, the QARMAN (QubeSat for Aerothermodynamic Research and Measurements on Ablation) CubeSat survived six and a half minutes of testing inside Italy's Scirocco Plasma Wind Tunnel.

An arc jet using up to 70 megawatts of power – enough to light up a town of 80 000 people – converted air into hot plasma at temperatures of several thousand degrees Celsius, which sped towards QARMAN at seven times the speed of sound. See video of the test here.

"This test marked the world premiere in arc jet testing of a complete, full-scale spacecraft," explains test engineering group leader Eduardo Trifoni. "It also represents a tremendous step forward in our ground testing, since up to now only single components were tested at a time."

CubeSats are low-cost nanosatellites based around standard 10 cm units and typically end their spaceflights burning up in the atmosphere as their orbits gradually decay. But the three-unit QARMAN is designed with this fiery fate in mind.

Designed and manufactured for ESA by Belgium's Von Karman Institute, QARMAN will use temperature and pressure sensors together with an emission spectrometer to gather precious data on the extreme conditions of reentry as its leading edges are enveloped in scorching plasma.

"The precious outcome of this test gives us confidence that the QARMAN design will indeed make it through the reentry phase," said project leader Davide Masutti of the Von Karman Institute. "The results of the real flight are now the missing element to consolidate our design strategy based on ground-testing, numerical models and flight data."

QARMAN is due to be deployed from the International Space Station next year. It will orbit Earth for around four months before reentering the atmosphere. It will survive reentry but not its fall to Earth. Instead its data will be transmitted to Iridium telecom satellites.

Explore further: Image: Qarman CubeSat in Hertz test chamber

Related Stories

Image: Qarman CubeSat in Hertz test chamber

December 9, 2015

This full-size prototype of part of the first CubeSat designed for atmospheric reentry is dwarfed by the cavernous surroundings of ESA's Hertz radio-testing chamber.

Image: Satellite panel following reentry testing

March 21, 2018

Ideally, no parts of a reentering satellite would survive their fiery return through the atmosphere, so testing is being used to understand how satellites break apart as they fall.

Expert's reentry flap endures hot baptism

June 30, 2011

( -- A spacecraft control flap designed for the super-heated hypersonic fall through Earth’s atmosphere has come through testing in the world’s largest plasma wind tunnel to be ready for its first flight ...

Image: CubeSat micro-pulsed plasma thruster

June 13, 2018

This micro-pulsed plasma thruster has been designed for propulsion of miniature CubeSats; its first firing is seen here. The thruster works by pulsing a lightning-like electric arc between two electrodes. This vaporizes ...

Tiny satellite's first global map of ice clouds

May 15, 2018

Looking at Earth from the International Space Station, astronauts see big, white clouds spreading across the planet. They cannot distinguish a gray rain cloud from a puffy white cloud. While satellites can see through many ...

Recommended for you

Engineering cellular function without living cells

March 25, 2019

Genes in living cells are activated – or not – by proteins called transcription factors. The mechanisms by which these proteins activate certain genes and deactivate others play a fundamental role in many biological processes. ...

What ionized the universe?

March 25, 2019

The sparsely distributed hot gas that exists in the space between galaxies, the intergalactic medium, is ionized. The question is, how? Astronomers know that once the early universe expanded and cooled enough, hydrogen (its ...

Catalyst advance removes pollutants at low temperatures

March 25, 2019

Researchers at Washington State University, University of New Mexico, Eindhoven University of Technology, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed a catalyst that can both withstand high temperatures and convert ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.