NASA’s extensive expertise is proving indispensable to two American small businesses operating in the burgeoning sector of low Earth orbit operations. Canopy Aerospace Inc. and Outpost Technologies Corp. are making significant advancements in heat shield technologies and cargo delivery systems, thanks to their collaboration with NASA.
Heat shields are important to spacecraft that are expected to reenter Earth’s atmosphere. The trip through Earth’s atmosphere produces friction so intense that the spacecraft experiences extreme temperatures that could damage or destroy the spacecraft and its cargo or crew if they are not protected.
Uncrewed missions regularly ferry valuable cargo to and from the International Space Station. The returning cargo routinely includes results from scientific experiments that may someday have practical applications on Earth through NASA’s Spinoff programs.
Past issues with heat shields include:
- A faulty indicator. A false reading misled mission controllers into believing that John Glenn’s heat shield had come loose during the Friendship 7 mission.
- More ablation than expected. After the Demo-2 mission, SpaceX technicians found more ablation than they expected in some parts of the Crew Dragon’s heat shield. The findings were used to reinforce the heat shield in those places. NASA also found that the uncrewed Orion spacecraft used for Artemis 1 experienced more erosion than expected.
- Heat shield tiles falling off during launch. This is what destroyed the Columbia space shuttle during its return after the STS-107 mission. An uncrewed Starship launch also revealed that it might lose heat shield tiles during launch. (This demonstrates the value of uncrewed launch testing, BTW. It gives SpaceX a chance to fix the issues before there’s an actual crew on board.)
NASA is working with private companies to make improvements in heat shield technology to adress these issues and better protect cargo that is returning to Earth.
Canopy Aerospace Inc., based in Littleton, Colorado, is working with NASA to revolutionize ceramic heat shield production. The RHAM (Reusable Heatshields Additive Manufacturing) platform, developed by Canopy Aerospace, builds on the heritage methods of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program. This innovative approach incorporates novel materials, new binding techniques, and advanced heat treatment processes to create a new breed of ceramic heat shields. Given the extreme conditions of space, where spacecraft and space station hardware endure both freezing cold and scorching heat, the development of robust thermal protection systems (TPS) is imperative.
During re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, these components are exposed to temperatures as high as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. NASA, with its legacy in TPS development under the Space Shuttle Program, recognizes the critical role improved heat shield manufacturing plays in driving down launch costs, shortening lead times, and enabling new mission capabilities for future spacecraft. As the commercial space market expands, the need for enhanced manufacturing methods becomes increasingly crucial.
Simultaneously, Outpost Technologies Corp., headquartered in Santa Monica, California, is collaborating with NASA to design a groundbreaking cargo transport vehicle known as Cargo Ferry. This reusable vehicle comprises a payload container for cargo, solar array wings for power, a deployable heat shield for re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, and a robotic paraglider system for precision landings.
The Cargo Ferry project aims to facilitate more frequent transportation of non-human cargo from space stations back to Earth. This innovation not only streamlines cargo logistics but also frees up valuable research and stowage space on board the space station. Given the anticipated smaller size of future commercial space stations compared to the International Space Station, adaptable solutions like Cargo Ferry become increasingly relevant.
Both collaborations exemplify NASA’s commitment to supporting a growing commercial space industry. Engaging with small businesses through SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) contracts, NASA’s Commercial Low Earth Orbit Development Program facilitates the alignment of commercially viable technology ideas with NASA’s mission needs. This approach not only benefits NASA but also positions these businesses to cater to a broader customer base in low Earth orbit.
NASA’s involvement in these innovative projects underscores its dedication to advancing aerospace capabilities in collaboration with the private sector. Improved heat shield manufacturing and innovative cargo transport solutions contribute to the overarching goal of reducing costs, shortening timelines, and expanding mission possibilities for future space endeavors. As the space industry continues to evolve, NASA’s strategic partnerships with small businesses play a pivotal role in fostering innovation, accessibility, and opportunities in space exploration.