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Superconductor forcefield to shield re-entering spacecraft?

Euro/Russian plan for submarine missile test mulled

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Space boffins have hatched a plan to test their radical new superconductor magnet forcefield re-entry heatshield technology by firing it into space from a Russian submarine.

Flight International reported on the scheme yesterday, describing cooperative efforts by German space agency DLR (Deutschen Zentrums für Luft- und Raumfahrt), the European Space Agency and Euro aerospace megacorp EADS Astrium.

The proposed test module would use a magnetic field generated by superconducting magnets to deflect the superhot plasma which results when a spacecraft re-enters Earth's atmosphere at the tremendously high speeds required by space missions. Normally the heat is resistant by super-tough but troublesome insulating materials, as in the space shuttle, or by one-shot ablative coatings which burn off as a spacecraft descends.

Magnetic shielding, if successful, could offer the prospect of lighter and more reliable heat shields, as well as that of being able to re-use re-entry craft more easily.

Flight quotes an EADS Astrium official, Detlev Konigorski, as saying that the idea is "gaining more momentum", but nonetheless far from being a done deal. However, the DLR is now said to be "on board".

Not many of the technical issues seem to have been addressed yet, with the allied corporate and space-agency boffins still assessing the performance of the proposed superconducting coil and pondering methods of fitting it into a Russian "Volan" escape pod.

If the ploy goes ahead, however, the idea would be to test it relatively cheaply by launching the magnetic Volan on a suborbital trajectory using a modified SS-N-18 ballistic missile (NATO codename "Stingray") fired from a Russian submarine offshore and coming down in the remote Kamchatka peninsula. ®

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