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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.

The Aero Sekur space foamchute prototype concept

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. ®

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