Surviving Atmospheric Re-Entry

How to protect a spacecraft from the intense heat it experiences when entering the atmosphere of a planet and ensuring it lands on the surface intact?

The European Space Agency (ESA) has commissioned ThinkTank Maths to investigate novel mathematics for atmospheric entry problems.


ThinkTank Maths’ fundamental mathematical work will challenge the traditional simplifying assumptions involved in the heat flux calculations with the prospect of improving their accuracy significantly.

A crucial part of the project involves exploring new ways to solve the Schrödinger equation — one of the most famous and fundamental equations in quantum mechanics — without resorting to the Born-Oppenheimer approximation. While this approximation has been used for decades, there is growing evidence that it is not valid in the extreme conditions experienced by spacecraft during re-entry, and it may in fact contribute to the large error margins of the current mathematical models.

Improvements in atmospheric entry modelling would lead to decisive reductions in the amount of heat shielding required. This could make currently unrealistic missions feasible, opening new horizons for planetary exploration of our Solar System.

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