EU funds ICARUS consortium with 15€ Millions to develop inflatable heat shield for rocket stages recovery from space and preparation for Mars missions

ICARUS consortium led by Spain’s Deimos includes among others partners such as Germany’s Atmos, the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), and official space research centres from Italy (CIRA) and France (ONERA)

A European consortium, led by Spanish mission and system integrator Elecnor Deimos (“Deimos”), is collaborating to demonstrate the feasibility of developing an inflatable heat shield (IHS) for recovering rocket stages from space. If successful, the system could also protect precious cargo during re-entry and descent to Earth and could eventually be used for Mars missions.

ICARUS (“Inflatable Concept Aeroshell for the Recovery of a re-Usable launcher Stage”) has received €10 million worth of funding by the European Commission (EC) under the Horizon Europe programme (grant nr. 101134997) and is a follow-on project to EFESTO-1 (€3 million) and to EFESTO-2 (€2 million), funded by Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe first-batch, respectively. ICARUS consists of three phases.

During the first phase, the consortium will complete the mission and system design along with on-the-ground maturation of key technologies. During the second phase, it will carry out a flight test on board a sounding rocket with a meaningful-scale demonstrator of an IHS in hypersonic conditions. When inside the rocket, the IHS demonstrator will have an approximate diameter of 50cm and when inflated the shield will measure about 3m diameter. Depending on the application, a commercial full scale version could have a diameter of 10m diameter when inflated.

The third phase consists of post-flight analysis of data and information collected during the mission: this will allow engineers to understand the behaviour of the spacecraft, to evaluate the performance of the technologies on board of it, and to verify the capabilities of the simulation models to predict both.

The kick-off for the ICARUS project, estimated to take about four years in total, is planned for June 2024 and a demonstrator test date envisaged for 2028.

The consortium is led by Deimos playing the role of programmatic management and systems engineering and integration, and includes the following partners and affiliations:

  • German Aerospace Centre (DLR-MORABA and DLR AS-HYP), responsible for flight test, launch campaign execution, and the vehicle’s health monitoring system
  • Italian Aerospace Research Centre (CIRA), responsible for the vehicle’s thermal protection system
  • French Aerospace Research Centre (ONERA), responsible the vehicle’s aeroshape definition and pre- and post-flight characterisation
  • Pangaia Grado Zero (Italy), contributing to the development of innovative health monitoring sensors
  • Politecnico di Torino (Italy), responsible for dissemination and communication
  • Atmos Space Cargo (Germany), responsible for the inflatable structure
  • HDES Service & Engineering (The Netherlands), responsible for the inflation system
  • Demcon Advanced Mechatronics (The Netherlands), contributing to the development of innovative health monitoring sensors

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. Collaborating with so many fantastic partners shows the power and potential of the European space landscape and the trust of all the partners in Deimos’s capability as project lead. This is a fantastic endeavour to use our expertise as a mission and system integrator to forge the various technologies and systems into a working product.”

Sebastian Klaus, CEO of Atmos Space Cargo, said:

“Inflatable Atmospheric Decelerators are at the cutting edge of re-entry technology, and Atmos Space Cargo has been trusted by DEIMOS and its consortium partners to design and manufacture the inflatable structure. ICARUS aims to become the first flight demonstration of this new technology for the European Union. Supporting this endeavour with our manufacturing and testing expertise is perfectly in line with our vision of returning any type of cargo from space, at any scale.”

Prof. Ali Gülhan, head of the department for supersonic and hypersonic technology at DLR’s Institute of Aerodynamics and Flow Technology, said:

“To plan and integrate such a demanding payload for a sounding rocket flight experiment, including the respective wind tunnel testing in advance, will be a challenging and therefore exciting endeavour with a ground-breaking outcome. Together with our partners at DLR’s Mobile Rocket Base (MORABA), we will contribute our long-lasting experience to make the flight experiment a big success.”

Jean-Marc Charbonnier, space program director at ONERA, said:

“The consortium consists of an experienced team of high-level research organisations and industries that has already illustrated its performance during the successful EFESTO projects, which led to the ICARUS project.  ONERA adds its internationally recognised expertise as the French Aerospace Research Establishment of the Armed Forces Ministry. The inflatable heat shield of the project is a potential technological and system disruption. ONERA contributes through its expertise in the aerothermodynamic characterization of inflatable heat shield performance. Folding/inflation simulations will complete ONERA’s involvement in support of Atmos Space Cargo to carry out a successful demonstration.”

Inflatable heat shields, also known as inflatable atmospheric decelerators (IADs), could be a fundamental new way to decelerate and protect various space systems during re-entry and descent. As a result, they could be ideal for the expansion of commercial space transportation technologies and services aiming to recover and reuse launcher stages and other space cargo. Integrating ad-hoc guidance, navigation and control (GNC) systems would further enhance these capabilities and allow the possibility of precision-landing applications on Earth and Mars.

Inflatable heat shields are deemed a game-changer due to intrinsic key features such as low re-entry ballistic coefficient, which can reduce mechanical and aerothermal loads during re-entry. While deployable capsules can be easily accommodated into the launch vehicles in a folded configuration and then deployed when needed. Due to this combination, they can be used to recover and potentially reuse segments of various space systems such as rocket stages. This makes them more sustainable and having less impact on the environment.

About Elecnor Deimos

Deimos is a European technology group founded in 2001 with more than 500 staff, headquartered in Spain with subsidiaries in five countries: Spain, Portugal, Italy, Romania and the United Kingdom.

They provide advanced technologies in space, defence, transports, aeronautics, maritime, telecommunications and digital intelligence.

Deimos is the technology branch of Elecnor, a large Spanish group founded in 1958, traded on the Madrid Stock Exchange, and currently covering a total of 12 sectors within four large business areas: networks and infrastructures, telecommunications and IT, renewable energies, and concessions.

Links to consortium partners: