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Parachute and folding ‘petals’ to enable recovery and reuse of Orbex rockets

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The 'petals' will unfold to slow the descent of Orbex Prime's stage one
The 'petals' will unfold to slow the descent of Orbex Prime's stage one

A lightweight parachute and ‘petals’ that unfold to create drag will slow the descent of spent rocket stages heading back to Earth, a UK space company has claimed, allowing them to be refurbished or recycled.

Reusable launch systems such as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy and Falcon 9 rockets typically use rocket engine firings to slow down during re-entry and landing. Scottish firm Orbex hopes to instead repurpose existing structural features to enable recovery of its much lighter Prime rocket.

The Forres firm announced that it had successfully patented its Reflight reusable rocket technology today (27 March), following patent approval in several European markets, based on the patent grant by the European Patent Office, as well as in the US.

The Prime will consist of two stages and an ‘interstage’ structure between them, which the Reflight system will repurpose. After stage one detaches from stage two, the interstage will reconfigure into four ‘petals’ that fold out and create drag forces that ‘passively reorient’ and slow the spent rocket stage’s descent to Earth.

“In combination with a lightweight parachute, the drag created by the petals will enable stage one to perform a low velocity landing at sea,” Orbex said.

The company said it would then recover the floating first stage and return it to its factory in Forres for refurbishment or recycling. “During descent and recovery, there will be no debris left in orbit, on land or in sea, creating a ‘circular rocket economy’,” the announcement added.

The announcement also said: “The technology is uniquely suited to micro-launcher rockets… since it enables recovery of the launch vehicle by repurposing existing structural features, while adding very little additional weight to the vehicle. It thereby enables reusability with very limited overall performance penalty and no additional rocket propulsion emissions in the upper atmosphere during re-entry.”

Chief technology officer Jonas Bjarnø said: “At each step in the construction of Prime, we are looking at how to improve the launch system efficiency and sustainability. Our Reflight technology is a critical innovation in overall efficiency of the system, and the slower return to Earth reduces risk of significant aerothermal damage, enabling refurbishment and reuse of parts. This is really critical to our vision for a more sustainable, circular rocket economy.”

The company recently announced it had been granted a patent to protect its coaxial tanking technology.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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