Attack of the Italian space pod parachute babes
Orbital foam-dive project has models signed up
Farnborough So far at Farnborough, we've brought you news on all the mainstream, humdrum pieces of sky-tech: stealth superfighters, supersonic jumpjets, tiltrotor plane-copters for the rooftop penthouse dwelling billionaire in your life. By now, many of you will have been saying to yourselves, "That's all very well, but it's a bit mainstream. When oh when are we going to hear about the inflatable foam space re-entry pod/pant module and associated all-female Italian skydiving team?"
The faces of the Italian space-diving industry.
That moment has come. Today the Reg aerospace desk got the chance to view the ladies of the Aero Sekur Shooting Stars in death-defying aerial action above the Farnborough crowds, and later we spoke to Giacomo Giovangrossi, who is Space Unit manager at Italian aviation company Aero Sekur. As makers of various kinds of parachute and aviation survival systems, Aero Sekur find it very appropriate to be corporate sponsors of the Shooting Stars - the "first all female parachute team ever to perform at Farnborough", apparently. Aero Sekur says the team jumped wearing the latest products of Italian high fashion, "suits specially designed for the airshow". For those interested, here are the ladies' vital statistics: Maria Cristina Angelucci, 4700 jumps; Alessandra D'Annibale, 3000 jumps; Eva Tusset, 3000 jumps; Simona Minghetti, 700 jumps. For the benefit of those readers who happen to be our wife, we'd like to note that we had no personal contact with any of them.
But Aero Sekur isn't content with making mere ordinary parachutes. Like certain other companies, it's set its sights on a small, lightweight system - conceivably small enough to be mounted on a space suit - which would permit an astronaut to survive re-entry from orbit and descend to land by parachute. Ever since Heinlein's classic Starship Troopers - the book, not the film - the idea of space paratroops has been a compelling one. Power-armoured spaceborne infantry would seem a long way off in the real world, though Heinlein fans will be pleased to note that Aero Sekur has a body armour subsidiary. Nonetheless, smaller, lighter-weight astronaut escape systems could have real applications in the near future. The wish to keep bailout options open for space crews is a noticeable design constraint on manned spacecraft, and often imposes restrictions on operations day to day.
Aero Sekur's plan is simple in outline. An astronaut - or a small escape pod deploying from a spacecraft - would use a canister of specialised foam to inflate a bowl-shaped oblate heat shield in the early phases of descent. The foam would set hard to become an extremely tough heat barrier. The shield would be shaped so as to hold the payload - the shipwrecked astronaut, droids carrying important messages etc. - in the safe zone behind it as it blazed down through the atmosphere.
Could it really work on a space suit, though?
Yes, says Giovangrossi - "a big suit, though". In real life, we might be looking more at a small escape pod type of platform.
A new concept in really hot pants
Aero Sekur naturally proposes unmanned - or in this case, presumably unwomanned - flight trials to begin with, and at a small scale. The company has already ground-tested a small prototype system, able to deal with the energy release involved in de-orbiting a 15kg payload. The trials involved placing the test inflata-shield inside a plasma wind tunnel - in other words playing an enormous, thousand-degree jet blowtorch on it. Temperature probes immediately behind the shield, according to Giovangrossi, recorded no more than 80 degrees C - which is "within the astronaut safety zone".
All in all, Aero Sekur's design seems more advanced than other plans such as those by swashbuckling US spacesuit firm Orbital Outfitters  to use a rigid shield podule of some sort for spacejumping. It could be that the US aspirant, which aims to make suits that have a literally high-fashion coolness factor as well as the ability to withstand orbital re-entry, will find themselves beaten to the punch. The Italians, in classic style, appear already to have stolen a march on their rivals in terms of potential space-babe glamour models. The one thing they don't seem to have got right is the name, in our opinion - the inflatafoam space-chute has initially been dubbed SPacecrew Emergency Module (SPEM), which is hardly going to add to one's bella figura.
All that said, Aero Sekur is as bereft of flight schedules as its transatlantic rival. The firm has had discussions with the European Space Agency about flight trials for its prototype, but as yet there are no firm plans.
Regarding the matter of which Shooting Star might eventually become the world's first space parachutist - truly, the first really haut couture sky diver - Giovangrossi played his cards close to his chest.
"Tests with humans are a long way off", he said. ®