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The usual approach to reentry is fast and hot. There's a lot of energy to be lost, and doing it quickly has some advantages: You can dump energy into hypersonic air, and then leave that heat behind so that the hot part is over before the inside of the craft heats up.

As an alternative, what would it take to "fly" a slow reentry?

A typical LEO satellite, for example, is currently doing a stupendously slow reentry, dropping a few km at a time due to drag without significant heating. Eventually, however, when it hits denser atmosphere, it'll start losing energy and altitude fast, and convert to the fast & hot mode, usually burning up.

To avoid that, can a returning spacecraft could "fly" at the very top of the atmosphere for a long time? The craft would only slowly lose speed so keeping thermal issues small, without falling to lower altitude & denser air until the speed is far below orbital speed and normal flight can take over.

Normally, gliding flight is "balance lift and drag to fly at a descent rate that keeps speed constant". This would be more of a "balance lift and drag to fly at a slowly decreasing speed while maintaining altitude"

Is there any research available on what such a profile might look like, and what lift and drag performance would be needed to pull it off? (Even if we can't build such a craft, now or perhaps even ever)

Some related questions:

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  • $\begingroup$ This has been done decades ago with the Apollo capsule, see Wikipedia to reduce deceleration from 20 g to only 4 g and to reduce heat load too. more Wiki $\endgroup$ – Uwe Jul 4 '18 at 19:22
  • $\begingroup$ Likewise Shuttle, using body lift to fly a 3g reentry. The trouble with slow reentry is that you wind up receiving more total heating than if you just get it over with fast. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Jul 4 '18 at 20:50
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    $\begingroup$ It's my understanding that if you have enough speed to get lift ≅ weight at high altitude, you're going to get significant heating. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Jul 4 '18 at 20:59
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    $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble " to increase lift somehow....and the easiest way to do that is to lose altitude": or use speed energy to overcome drag instead of gravitational. The F14 supersonic double-engine-out procedure was to start a 1k fpm climb at decreasing speed & work the problem, only transitioning to a more-traditional "max range" or "max duration" glide constant-speed glide once no longer supersonic. I was told that best managed total energy. $\endgroup$ – Bob Jacobsen Jul 4 '18 at 22:14
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    $\begingroup$ I've done this in Kerbal once, it was a 5 stage rocket, the first 2 stages to reach the edge of the atmosphere and negate horizontal momentum, the last 3 to descend without a parachute. It's absolutely brutal to fight gravity for a lengthy period of time. I reentered the atmosphere going 0m/s and never sped up beyond 100m/s. I was completely starved of fuel by around ~10km up and had to bailout hah. $\endgroup$ – Magic Octopus Urn Jul 5 '18 at 12:23
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Not without propellant. Or at least not easily. However the "why" is a bit tricky.

This is far from the whole story but one of the problems is generating enough lift to keep you from diving too fast into the atmosphere is tricky.

  • If you're going near orbital velocity you can scrub speed quite well as you don't need to generate much lift.

  • At low speed, you can survive going through the lower atmosphere so you can generate the lift aerodynamically

In-between is where it gets difficult. Going at near orbital velocity it's hard to generate meaning full lift.

Firstly lift to drag ratios always get lower at high velocity. http://www.aerospaceweb.org/design/waverider/design.shtml has a bit on it but the important bit for us is lift to drag scales very roughly as $(M + 3)/M$, where $M$ is the mach number.

More significantly, the shape you need to keep the hot shockwave off the surface (a blunt curve) is not conducive to generating significant lift. Worse, while this is happening you're still generating significant heat.

It might be possible to do better in future with shape altering materials that can always be 'optimal' but you can't generate good lift from mach 20 airflow, without generating a lot of heat. Currently the plan is to get this bit over-with as fast as possible, not to prolong it, because peak temperature is less significant that how long you're exposed to 5000ish degrees.

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It is possible to do a slow and cool reentry. But it would be extreamly expensive.

Just slow down from orbit speed to subsonic speed above the atmosphere and then fight gravity until it is possible to deploy parachutes. All that using rockets thrust to decelerate. No heat shield necessary. But you need a very large rocket with at least two stages in orbit attatched to the spacecraft. About that size necessary to lift the spacecraft from ground to orbit.

But you would need multiple rockets of Saturn V size to lift the spacecraft and the rocket for return into orbit.

It is much cheaper to use the atmosphere for braking using a heat shield. Entering the atmosphere with hypersonic speed will transform energy from speed into heat. Much slower airplanes faster than sonic heat up too. You can't get atmospheric drag to slow down and lift to keep height without the heat caused by compression of air. Thats physics.

No manned orbital missions like Soyuz, Mercury, Gemini and Shuttle would have been possible using this slow and cool reentry.

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    $\begingroup$ xkcd worked this out in a What-If article a while ago. He basically says the same thing as this answer, talking about the tyranny of the rocket equation and the high velocities involved. Check out the article if you want a more in-depth (and humorous) explanation. $\endgroup$ – Cody Jul 5 '18 at 20:37
  • $\begingroup$ Good answer. I'm pondering the difference in heat between the heat of compression vs. the heat of descending through one's rocket exhaust. Cooler, but "cool"? Not sure. $\endgroup$ – Don Branson Jul 5 '18 at 20:55
  • $\begingroup$ Above the atmosphere, the rocket exhaust will spread so fast that the resulting heat load will be very small. $\endgroup$ – Uwe Jul 8 '18 at 15:07
  • $\begingroup$ More exactly, you need a launch rocket that is proportional to the size of the return rocket at the same proportion the return rocket is to the craft itself. For some figures, if you have a 1 megagram craft and 150 megagram launch rocket, then to turn that latter rocket into a slow-return rocket means you now have to have a $\left(\frac{150}{1}\right)^2$, i.e. 150x the 150x craft mass, or 22 500 megagram launch rocket for this slow-return spacecraft. That's roughly 7 times larger than the Saturn V (2970 Mg). $\endgroup$ – The_Sympathizer May 4 at 23:13
  • $\begingroup$ Hence, far cheaper to just design the craft to either be expendable (satellites) or able to take a hot and fast return (all returning craft to date). $\endgroup$ – The_Sympathizer May 4 at 23:14

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