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When one thinks of atmospheric re-entry, they commonly think of such things as space
shuttles coming back from a mission. However, while the term may be slightly erroneous is
some cases, it also involves satellites and meteors that burn up in our atmosphere as well as those
that manage to land. We, however, are mostly concerned with the satellites as they have little to
no propulsion system of their own and originated from the earth¶s surface. Whether they burn up
or not is a matter of thermodynamics, but where they land is a matter of mechanics.

The concept of the ablative heat shield was described as early as 1920 by Robert Goddard.
Practical development of reentry systems began as the range and reentry velocity of ballistic
missiles increased. For early short-range missiles, like the V-2, stabilization and aerodynamic
stress were important issues (many V-2s broke apart during reentry), but heating was not a
serious problem. Medium-range missiles like the Soviet R-5, with a 1200 km range, required
ceramic composite heat shielding on separable reentry vehicles (it was no longer possible for the
entire rocket structure to survive reentry). The first ICBMs, with ranges of 8000 to 12,000 km,
were only possible with the development of modern ablative heat shields and blunt-shaped
vehicles. In the USA, this technology was pioneered by H. Julian Allen at Ames Research. In the
Soviet Union, Yuri A. Dunaev developed similar technology at the Leningrad Physical-
Technical Institute.


Before the disintegration of OV-102 Columbia highlighted the dangers of atmospheric

re-entry, it had seemingly become almost routine; the Columbia Accident Investigation Board
noted that NASA had a zero impact specification even though it recorded a multitude of thermal
protection system (TPS) strikes by debris in every mission. Unfortunately, a piece of foam
insulation fell off the External Tank and impacted the reinforced carbon-carbon leading edge of
Columbia's wing, allowing the heat of re-entry to penetrate into the wing and cause it to fail.
Since we had never suffered a catastrophic failure in this environment, the situation was assumed
to be acceptable. Now, at great cost, we know better.
Úc Dissipating kinetic energy

For any given orbital altitude, there is a specific velocity required to maintain that orbit.
For a standard Space Shuttle LEO (Low-Earth Orbit) profile, the orbital velocity is around
17,500 mph (about 7823 m/s). The landing speed of the Shuttle is around 225 mph or 100 m/s
(this velocity is even lower for reentry capsules, for obvious reasons). Given that kinetic energy
equals ½*m*v^2, that equates to a factor of 60 difference between the two energy states.
Somehow, a reentry vehicle needs to bleed off that excess energy. Enough fuel could be carried
for a fully powered reentry, but that would be prohibitive from a mass standpoint and would still
require you to kill all of your forward velocity to land. Given our available options, aerobraking,
using the atmosphere to slow down was the natural choice. (The Delta Clipper, or DC-X, had it
been built, would have been an exception to the rule, since it was to land vertically.)

Úc Aerodynamic effects

From an aerodynamic standpoint, a vehicle can be blunt (a ballistic reentry vehicle, or

R/V, like the Apollo capsule) or generate lift (like the shuttle). The first benefits from the strong
shockwave it generates - this insulates it from the high-temperature airstream to a degree. The
corresponding disadvantage is that it decelerates much more strongly, especially in the lower,
denser parts of the atmosphere, though it requires less time to reenter. The lifting body slows
down much more gradually by shifting its deceleration into the upper atmosphere.

Úc Thermal effects

With either approach, you have to deal with the thermal consequences of your choice.
Since the ballistic R/V gets to the ground faster, it¶s also bleeding off kinetic energy faster,
which results in correspondingly higher peak temperatures. The lifting R/V spends more time
bleeding energy off in the upper atmosphere, so its peak heating is potentially lower. However,
the total amount of heat absorbed can end up being higher. Furthermore, peak temperature and
the sharpness of a surface are related, since the sharp edge doesn¶t build up that insulating buffer
of air that the ballistic R/V does. As a result, temperatures along the nose and leading edge of the
lifting R/V can become very high (up to 2400 degrees F in the case of the Shuttle, and neither its
leading edge nor its nose are particularly sharp). Constructing materials and structures that can
withstand such temperatures is quite a challenge; making them durable and impact-resistant is an
even greater challenge.

Entry vehicle design considerations

There are four critical parameters considered when designing a vehicle for atmospheric entry:
1.c Peak heat flux
2.c Heat load
3.c Peak deceleration
4.c Peak dynamic pressure

Peak heat flux and dynamic pressure selects the TPS material. Heat load selects the
thickness of the TPS material stack. Peak deceleration is of major importance for manned
missions. The upper limit for manned return to Earth from Low Earth Orbit (LEO) or lunar
return is 10 Gs. For Martian atmospheric entry after long exposure to zero gravity, the upper
limit is 4 Gs. Peak dynamic pressure can also influence the selection of the outermost TPS
material if spallation is an issue.

Starting from the principle of     c  " , the engineer typically considers two
worst case trajectories, the undershoot and overshoot trajectories. The undershoot trajectory is
typically defined as the shallowest allowable entry velocity angle prior to atmospheric skip-off.
The overshoot trajectory has the highest heat load and sets the TPS thickness. The undershoot
trajectory is defined by the steepest allowable trajectory. For manned missions the steepest entry
angle is limited by the peak deceleration. The undershoot trajectory also has the highest peak
heat flux and dynamic pressure. Consequently the undershoot trajectory is the basis for selecting
the TPS material. There is no "one size fits all" TPS material. A TPS material that is ideal for
high heat flux may be too conductive (too dense) for a long duration heat load. A low density
TPS material might lack the tensile strength to resist spallation if the dynamic pressure is too
high. A TPS material can perform well for a specific peak heat flux, but fail catastrophically for
the same peak heat flux if the wall pressure is significantly increased (this happened with
NASA's R-4 test spacecraft). Older TPS materials tend to be more labor intensive and expensive
to manufacture compared to modern materials. However, modern TPS materials often lack the
flight history of the older materials (an important consideration for a risk adverse designer).

Based upon Allen and Eggers discovery, maximum aeroshell bluntness (maximum drag)
yields minimum TPS mass. Maximum bluntness (minimum ballistic coefficient) also yields a
minimal terminal velocity at maximum altitude (very important for Mars EDL, but detrimental
for military RVs). However, there is an upper limit to bluntness imposed by aerodynamic
stability considerations based upon 
c+ c 
 . A shock wave will remain attached
to the tip of a sharp cone if the cone's half-angle is below a critical value. This critical half-angle
can be estimated using perfect gas theory (this specific aerodynamic instability occurs below
hypersonic speeds). For a nitrogen atmosphere (Earth or Titan), the maximum allowed half-angle
is approximately 60°. For a carbon dioxide atmosphere (Mars or Venus), the maximum allowed
half-angle is approximately 70°. After shock wave detachment, an entry vehicle must carry
significantly more shocklayer gas around the leading edge stagnation point (the subsonic cap).
Consequently, the aerodynamic center moves upstream thus causing aerodynamic
instability. It is incorrect to reapply an aeroshell design intended for Titan entry (Huygens probe
in a nitrogen atmosphere) for Mars entry (Beagle-2 in a carbon dioxide atmosphere). Prior to
being abandoned, the Soviet Mars lander program achieved no successful landings (no useful
data returned) after multiple attempts. The Soviet Mars landers were based upon a 60° half-angle
aeroshell design. In the early 1960s, it was incorrectly believed the Martian atmosphere was
mostly nitrogen, (actual Martian atmospheric mole fractions are carbon dioxide 0.9550, nitrogen
0.0270 and argon 0.0160).

A 45 degree half-angle sphere-cone is typically used for atmospheric probes (surface

landing not intended) even though TPS mass is not minimized. The rationale for a 45° half-angle
is to have either aerodynamic stability from entry-to-impact (the heat shield is not jettisoned) or a
short-and-sharp heat pulse followed by prompt heat shield jettison. A 45° sphere-cone design
was used with the DS/2 Mars impactor and Pioneer Venus Probes.


In the United States, H. Julian Allen and A. J. Eggers, Jr. of the National Advisory
Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) made the counterintuitive discovery in 1951that a blunt
shape (high drag) made the most effective heat shield. From simple engineering principles, Allen
and Eggers showed that the heat load experienced by an entry vehicle was inversely proportional
to the drag coefficient, i.e. the greater the drag, the less the heat load. Through making the
reentry vehicle blunt, air can't "get out of the way" quickly enough, and acts as an air cushion to
push the shock wave and heated shock layer forward (away from the vehicle). Since most of the
hot gases are no longer in direct contact with the vehicle, the heat energy would stay in the
shocked gas and simply move around the vehicle to later dissipate into the atmosphere.

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The Allen and Eggers discovery, though initially treated as a military secret, was eventually
published in 1958.[4] The Blunt Body Theory made possible the heat shield designs that were
embodied in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space capsules, enabling astronauts to survive the
fiery reentry into Earth's atmosphere.

In the Soviet Union the R-7 ICBM was first successfully tested in 1957 with a sharp-nosed
conical warhead. This burned up at an altitude of 10 km over the target area, and was replaced
with a blunt-nosed conical design. Soviet heat shields consisted of layers of fiberglass together
with asbestos textolite.



Skip reentry is a reentry technique involving one or more successive "skips" off the
atmosphere to achieve greater entry range or to slow the spacecraft before final entry, which
helps to dissipate the huge amount of heat that is usually generated on faster descents. The range
modulation made possible by skip entry allows a spacecraft to reach a wider landing area, or to
reach a designated landing point from a wider range of possible entry times, which is especially
important in abort situations. Like aerocapture, skip reentry requires precise guidance. An overly
shallow entry angle will result in the spacecraft retaining too much of its velocity, possibly
escaping into space permanently if this is more than escape velocity. An overly steep entry, on
the other hand, results in more intense heating and stress that could exceed the design limits of
the spacecraft, potentially destroying it.

The basic concept is to 'clip' the atmosphere at such an angle that the craft is 'pushed' back out
into space, conceptually similar to a pebble skipping across the surface of a lake. Each time, the
craft's velocity is reduced so that it can eventually drop into the atmosphere at a low suborbital

In theory, any craft could perform skip re-entry as it does not require much lift, but in practise it
requires precise guidance. Although the space shuttle is capable of skip reentry, NASA has
carried it out only in computer simulations (Scott Horowitz, NASA interview, Jan. 25, 2007). It
is unclear how thermal shielding would fare under the rapid heating, cooling and reheating. In
theory STS-107 might have survived if a skip trajectory had been attempted - giving more time
for heat dissipation - but this cannot be proven.

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Skip entry was first imagined in the 1930s, when a suborbital skipping trajectory was
planned for the German Silbervogel bomber, which never flew. The technique was used by the
Zond series of circumlunar spacecraft, which planned for one skip before landing. Zond 6 and 7
made successful skip entries, although Zond 6 was largely destroyed on impact for unrelated
reasons. The Apollo Command Module, when returning from the moon, was capable of a one-
skip entry. The Orion spacecraft crew module will be capable of skip entry, to allow targeting the
landing site from a greater variety of abort trajectories.

÷ c÷cc

Úc Double dip entry, takes advantage of the lift of the vehicle to make two decelerating dips
into the atmosphere
Úc the heat transferred is more gradual, allowing the use of a thinner heat shield that relies
on radiating the heat


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Aerobraking is a spaceflight maneuver that reduces the high point of an elliptical orbit
(apoapsis) by flying the vehicle through the atmosphere at the low point of the orbit (periapsis).
The resulting drag slows the spacecraft. Aerobraking is used when a spacecraft requires a low
orbit after arriving at a body with an atmosphere, and it requires less fuel than does the direct use
of a rocket engine.

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When an interplanetary vehicle arrives at its destination, it must change its velocity to remain in
the vicinity of that body. When a low, near-circular orbit around a body with substantial gravity
(as is required for many scientific studies) is needed, the total required velocity changes can be
on the order of several kilometers per second. If done by direct propulsion, the rocket equation
dictates that a large fraction of the spacecraft mass must be fuel. This in turn means the
spacecraft is limited to a relatively small science payload and/or the use of a very large and
expensive launcher. Provided the target body has an atmosphere, aerobraking can be used to
reduce fuel requirements. The use of a relatively small burn allows the spacecraft to be captured
into a very elongated elliptic orbit. Aerobraking is then used to circularize the orbit. If the
atmosphere is thick enough, a single pass through it can be sufficient to slow a spacecraft as
needed. However, aerobraking is typically done with many orbital passes through a higher
altitude, and therefore thinner, region of the atmosphere. This is done to reduce the effect of
frictional heating, and because unpredictable turbulence effects, atmospheric composition, and
temperature make it difficult to accurately predict the decrease in speed that will result from any
single pass. When aerobraking is done in this way, there is sufficient time after each pass to
measure the change in velocity and make any necessary corrections for the next pass. Achieving
the final orbit using this method takes a long time (e.g., over six months when arriving at Mars),
and may require several hundred passes through the atmosphere of the planet or moon. After the
last aerobraking pass, the spacecraft must be given more kinetic energy via rocket engines in
order to raise the periapsis above the atmosphere--unless, of course, the intent is to land the

The kinetic energy dissipated by aerobraking is converted to heat, meaning that a spacecraft
using the technique needs to be capable of dissipating this heat. The spacecraft must also have
sufficient surface area and structural strength to produce and survive the required drag, but the
temperatures and pressures associated with aerobraking are not as severe as those of reentry or
aerocapture. Simulations of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter aerobraking use a force limit of
0.35 N per square meter with a spacecraft cross section of about 37 m², and a maximum expected
temperature as 340 °F (170 °C). The force density, of roughly 0.2 N (0.04 lbf) per square
meter[2], that was exerted on the Mars Observer, during aerobraking is comparable to the force of
a 40 mph (60 km/h) wind on a human hand at sea level on Earth.


Now that we have taken a look at the various factors that can affect an object during
atmospheric re-entry, we are left with, in the general case of an ellipse that intersects with the
Earth¶s surface, a general deformation of said ellipse by the pressure gradient force.

As for the many other factors that one might think would affect the trajectory of an object,
they generally either have a negligible effect or only affect the path of the object while it is still
in ³orbit.´ While they could possibly have an effect on one¶s calculations of the path of an
object based on phase 3 of a trajectory, they will not have an appreciable effect on a heavy object
during phases 1 or 2.
The total effect that all of this has on the trajectory is a shallowing of the path on launch
and a steepening of the path upon reentry. Thus, this is the reason that most objects made for re-
entry fulfill have their own propulsion system or are designed to re-enter the atmosphere at a low
angle to begin with. Most designs utilize both so as to conserve fuel. Once the space capsule,
for example, has slowed down sufficiently they then make use of parachutes to further slow the
descent so as to make for a softer landing.