Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Research - Re-entry bubbles

Could a human survive a fall from space?

The opening chapter of Ghosts of Innocence has Shayla ejecting from a plunging starship and entering the atmosphere in an inflatable bubble.

But there's a snag. She can traverse light years in a matter of hours and no-one will bat an eyelid, but readers might baulk at the likelihood of surviving these last few miles. So is it feasible?

The inspiration for this came from some genuine contemporary ideas for evacuating orbiting spacecraft.

I can't remember where I first heard of it, probably an article in New Scientist when they started looking at options for "lifeboats" on the ISS, but some variations of the idea go right back to the early '60s.

The closest to Shayla's re-entry bubble is probably MOOSE, which was a personal inflatable heat shield conceived in 1963. Various tests proved the viability of some aspects, and the thing might have stood a chance of working, but was never taken further.

In recent years, NASA has got a lot more serious about inflatable landing systems, though these are aimed more at small robotic craft than individuals.

Of course, Shayla's bubble goes far beyond today's capabilities. Light enough to fit in a small backpack, and using molecular engineering to form an airtight seal around the occupant, we haven't begun to develop materials with the necessary properties.

I also took the idea a lot further than simply landing someone in one piece. Shayla's device incorporates a lightweight shape-memory support structure that allows it to be reconfigured mid-flight into a glider wing. Researching typical paraglider sizes, I figured that a viable wing (200 to 300 sq ft) would be a similar surface area to a sphere of 7' to 8' diameter, so it was not hard to envisage suitably advanced micro-molecular engineering to allow one to transform into the other.


  1. If I recall correctly she got badly burned during that escapade which, to me anyway, made it more believable.

  2. Landing in one piece is key. Otherwise it's like the refrigerator scene in the last Indiana Jones movie.

  3. I would say no, but if you can make it believable, like it seems you have, I think I'd believe it.

  4. I'm not a SciFi person, but couldn't this bubble be made of a substance that bounces away heat, or converts it into ice? I wouldn't think this would require too much explanation.

  5. I loved the whole bubble aspect and felt like it was pulled off very well. When considering all the other tech involved in her world, the bubble wasn't a far stretch.

  6. Delores, you are quite correct, it wasn't all plain sailing.

    Alex, landing in one piece does help :)

    Chrys, weird thing is, it looks like such a feat is within the realms of possibility today.

    Stephen, in this story I place a lot of emphasis on advanced materials technology, including heat resistance.

    Crystal, thank you, glad it convinced you :)

  7. Impressive - I'd like one of yours please - that converts into glider wings, now that would be very cool. Not sure I'll sign up for a mission quite yet - I'll wait until Shayla masters it! :) :)

  8. Jenny, Shayla's injury resulted from some damage to the bubble as a result of a fight. Other than that, it's perfectly safe ... honest :)


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