EU grants €15M funding for ICARUS inflatable heat shield

Just don't let it fly too close to the Sun

Exclusive A European consortium has received €15 million of EU funding to develop an inflatable heat shield designed to recover rocket stages and land spacecraft on Mars.

The Inflatable Concept Aeroshell for the Recovery of a re-Usable launcher Stage (ICARUS - because boffins do love a tortured acronym) has received €10 million worth of funding from the European Commission (EC) under the Horizon Europe program. It is a follow-on to the similar EFESTO-1 and EFESTO-2 prototypes, which accounted for €5 million.

It's a relatively simple concept. Rather than carry a hefty rigid heat shield spacecraft and rocket stages could carry an inflatable heat shield deployed from a compact container to permit components to be safely returned to Earth, or land on other planets.

Render of the ICARUS inflatable heat shield entering the atmosphere

Illustration of the Inflatable Heat Shield during re-entry from space – click to enlarge

The concept is also not a new one. NASA has had several successful runs at the technology: its Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Demonstrator (HIAD) [PDF] was launched on a sounding rocket in 2012, and the US space agency took things further with its Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID), which was launched on an Atlas V rocket in 2022.

The initial goals for ICARUS and its consortium - led by Spanish mission and system integrator Elecnor Deimos - are more modest and will be broken into three phases. The first will be design, followed by the launch of a "meaningful-scale" demonstrator on a sounding rocket supplied by DLR-Moraba, and finally, post-flight analysis of the data.

Giuseppe Guidotti, ICARUS project manager, told The Register that DLR-Moraba was a key partner and would be "in charge of the flight test campaign design, rocket customization, flight campaign implementation and management including operations and interface with the test range authority."

We asked Guidotti what the consortium meant by "meaningful scale." We were told, "Meaningful scale is related to the minimum diameter size in order to experience the capability of manufacturing, integrating, and operating such a kind of heat shield."

Guidotti told us that ICARUS would be on a ballistic trajectory and not controlled. Future versions would need some form of guidance, navigation, and control system to support precision landings.

Simone Centuori, CEO of Deimos, said: "This is one of the most innovative projects of the decade encompassing a group of first-rate research organisations and companies. From EFESTO-1 to ICARUS, the development period is covering a total of nine years and €15 million of funding. ICARUS is a key technological enabler for Europe, which will revolutionise European re-entry technologies, supporting applications like recovering rocket stages and hypersonic entry on Mars.

"ICARUS also signifies a great future contribution to space sustainability. With its potential to return launch vehicles and satellites elements safely to Earth, it can become a game changer to the launcher industry." ®

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