Space Technologies

Space Technologies


New technologies for space exploration

During the last few years, the laboratory has been very active in the field of space technologies, with European funding, with the general objective the development of novel technologies to support the effort for space exploration. The main emphasis of our activities is the study and development of new materials and systems for thermal protection of robotic exploration craft as they enter planetary atmospheres.

Our main current activites are:

1) RASTAS SPEAR, FP7/Space-2009-1/241992 "Radiation Shapes Thermal Protection Investigations for high-speed earth re-entry". 1/9/2010 - 30/4/2013

Our lab has the main responsibility for examining a new thermal protective (TPS) ablator material from EADS/ASTRIUM ("ASTERM") which is capable of providing very heat flux protection  for explorative craft ("Earth Return Capsule", right, top) as they return to earth with speeds of more than 13km/sec (>45000km/hr) carrying a soil sample from another planetary body. This would for example be the sample-return mission "Marco Polo" under consideration for funding by the European Space Agency (ESA) in the coming years.

A significant part of our team's responsibility is the determination of the mechanical behaviour of ASTERM and the joints and bonds among the tiles and between the tiles and the substructure as well as the thermal behaviour during plasma-jet tests (4Mach) at up to about 15MW/m2  (see a video from such a test on the right). We also have had the responsibility to produce an almost-full size demonstrator shield of diameter about 90cm (right, bottom).

The Rastas Spear project is being coordinated and managed by one of the main European space companies EADS/ASTRIUM (Fr) and there are a total of 10 partners from 6 European states.

The project is now in its 3rd year and expected to be completed at the end of April 2013. For more information visit

2) PULCHER, FP7/Space-2012-1/313271 "Pulsed chemical rocket with green high performance propellants". 1/1/2013 - 31/12/2015

In this project, the laboratory has the responsibility for designing, studying and constructing the combustion chamber of a new type of mini-rocket (left) using material systems that can withstand the 5Bar pressure at combustion temperatures of up to 3200οC. In addition, a small working demonstrator needs to be constructed and demonstrated by the end of the project. It is interesting to note that the idea of the new pulsed rocket has come from the bombardier beetle (left, bottom) which uses a similar rocket principle to spray its enemies when threatened.

The successful culmination of the project will result in a new, environmentally cleaner and more benign rocket at lower mass to be used for course correction of small robotic craft and other space applications.

The project is being coordinated by the space rocket manufacturer ALTA (It) and take part another 9 partners from Europe the US and Japan.

For more information vist (tbc)

3) HybridTPS, ESA/ESTEC/19981 "HybridTPS: Feasibility and use study of a novel hybrid ceramic ablator TPS for probes". 2007-2008.

This project was carried out exclusively by the laboratory with ESA funding and concerned the development and feasibility study of a new, patented (2007-8) thermal protective system for probes based on a porous ceramic matrix filled with a phenolic ablator.The ceramic was a MgO-spinel oxide composite made by the SHS method and the phenolic was impregnated into the ceramic by a vacuum process. It was tested to 2.5MW/m2 and offers an alternative stronger, cheaper nett-shape approach to TPS construction than pure ablator and is still under development.

For more information see

4) HYDRA, FP7/Space-2011-1/283797 "Hybrid ablative development for re-entry in planetary atmospheric thermal protection", 1/2/2012 - 28/2/2015

The objective of this project is the development and testing of another type of TPS, one based on a layer of fibre-reinforced carbon composite (C/C) overlayed by a phenolic ablator (ASTERM). The new system is aimed at further reducing the mass of the TPS for planetary exploration probes. The laboratory will deal with mechanical  testing of the joints and bonds between the materials.

The project is coordinated by the research centre TECNALIA (Es) and brings together 10 partners from 7 European countries.

For more information visit

5) In-Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU) of regolith from Moon, Mars etc for the protection of space explorers from cosmic rays as shown in the illustration on the left.

In our lab we have developed a route for sintering regolith simulant using SHS under vacuum to produce solid blocks. The materials used were developed using information on the regolith composition reported from the Apollo missions. The work has recently expanded by a collaboration with Tokyo Institute of Technology.

6) ANMAC: A new shielding material system against Galactic Cosmic Rays. As existing shielding materials (polyethylene or water) is inadequatre for long missions, a new material system is under development consisting of magnetic particles in an polyethylene matrix. A proposal is under evaluation under FP7/Space (Oct 2012)

7) IRENA, a
Horizon2020/Space project to study and suggest potential space flight demonstrators in an effort to increase the European TRL for many critical technologies involved in EDL (Entry-Decent-Landing) of spacecraft. IRENA developed the road map for a 2018/2019 effort at preparing and sending a demonstrator to space with funding my ESA/EC and major European Space industries.

8) REGS, "A resistive grid TPS recession sensor" (previously called ReWiG) -
ESA-funded project for the development of a sensor to measure and monitor in real time the recession of ablative Thermal Protective Systems of spacecraft re-entering the atmosphere at very high velocities. The sensor is unique worldwide as it offers an easy and reliable route for measuring the actual recession behaviour of TPS ablative shields and will enable more accurate and relaible sizing of TPS.



22 January 2015