Photo/IllutrationThe Asahi Shimbun

A Japanese research team has devised a way for spacecraft to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere more safely using technology featured in the popular robot anime series "Mobile Suit Z Gundam.”

A hemispherical device called a “ballute,” used in the blockbuster anime series to transport the “mobile suit” robot through the atmosphere, was employed in the experiment, according to the team.

The researchers tested the method with an experiment on a microsatellite named EGG, bringing it back into the atmosphere more slowly than normal by deploying a heat-shielding aeroshell to drag the microsatellite in gently like a parachute.

The epoch-making success of the experiment, announced June 23, could lead to the development of technology that reduces the risks of spacecraft such as the Russian-made Soyuz, which carries astronauts, becoming dangerously hot due to aerodynamic heating when re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere from space at high velocities.

“The EGG would be useful for bringing samples from space as well as exploring atmospheric planets such as Mars,” said Kojiro Suzuki, a member of the team and professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Tokyo.

In January, the team released the 34-centimeter ultra-small “re-Entry satellite with Gossamer aeroshell and GPS/Iridium” (EGG) toward the Earth from the International Space Station (ISS), which orbits at an altitude of about 400 kilometers.

The aeroshell, measuring 80 cm in diameter, was made of the same material in fireproof clothing.

The device was inflated to open up like a parachute, taking about three months to descend at decelerating speeds and encountering less air resistance.

Eventually, the aeroshell burned up in the atmosphere about 95 km above near-equatorial Pacific in mid-May as scheduled.

If spacecraft are able to re-enter the earth at slower speeds, they could prevent possible overheating, leading to a simplification of heat-resistant shields as well as safe landings.