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For any spacecraft which travels through the earth's atmosphere, there's a critical thing which needs to be considered beforehand. Space travel is fast, and hitting the atmosphere at the kind of speed you'd have in orbit will make your spacecraft hot. Very hot. If you attempt to plow through the air without sufficient shielding, disaster could (and indeed, horrifically, did) occur.

It's fairly common for fiction to ignore this little inconvenient fact, because it means characters and impractically designed spaceships can get onto (or off) a planet without burning up. It simply doesn't include an atmosphere. In some cases, Applied Phlebotinum is used, or the ship simply slows down before reentry to avoid burning up. The later isn't necessarily too unrealistic for a ship which is using nuclear engines, or otherwise doesn't need to worry about fuel (or balancing fuel consumption with arrival time). If you have enough energy, cooling and propellant (the latter two are still needed until the air itself becomes dense enough to be useful), you can move as slowly as you want, but "enough" here is really big. The issue for all current orbital spacecraft is that they need to use most of their fuel to lift fuel (not crew or payload) to the altitude where it will be burned, and a ship that used its engines to slow down would be much more expensive since it'd have to carry even more fuel.

Contrast Reentry Scare. Compare Soft Water, a similar problem with using water as an all-purpose safety net.

Examples of Frictionless Reentry include:


Anime

  • Averted in Mobile Suit Gundam, given the Real Robot setting of the series. In the first case, Zeon forces don't actually expect the Gundam to be able to make it through reentry...because their own Zakus can't, which is demonstrated by the unlucky pilot Crown and his Zaku melting and shedding parts when he can't make it back to the Musai. The Gundam surprises the Zeon forces by deploying a 'heatproof film' and surviving to make landfall.
    • Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam also does this to another minor named pilot as a point of character development for Jerid Messa. His friend, Kacricon, had attempted to defeat the Gundam MKII by using Earth's field gravity to his advantage. That didn't go over so well, and with its heat shield is destroyed, his Marasai burned up in the atmosphere.
    • Kira Yamato is forced to try to re-enter in the Aile Strike as he deployed to defend the Archangel and shuttles shortly before their re-entry. His shield melts up before the Archangel (which deploys a similar heatproof film as the White Base) maneuvers to catch it atop one of its legs. This saves Kira from the worst of it, but he's still cooked inside the Strike and suffers for it once they make planet-side.
    • In Mobile Suit Gundam SEED Astray, Lowe and the Red Frame ends up facing this problem when a fight with the Gold Frame sends him hurtling into the gravity well of Earth. His Junk Guild buddies, however, use their ship and the massive amount of junk they gathered as a shield to grab Lowe and ride it out to Earth. They wreck their ship in the process, though.
  • The Macross franchise does deal with the friction of re-entry on occasion.
    • Hikaru's VF-1 get's quite hot and beat-up during its re-entry during the climactic battle.
    • While it does generate a lot of heat the YF-19 shows just how far craft have come in Macross Plus since it not only makes a safe re-entry but it does so completely unpowered and spinning uncontrollably while trying to avoid the orbital defence satellites.
    • Also comes up in the final battle of Macross Frontier Sayonara no Tsubasa when its commented that the Macross Quarter will burn up if they enter the atmosphere at full speed. So they make sure to get behind a large piece of debris to use as a heat shield. Then they proceed to sky surf it.


Film

  • Flight of the Navigator: The ship flies up to the edge of the atmosphere and back down again at multi-Mach speed with no heat or friction effects. Justified because of its advanced technology.
  • Aliens. The dropship's entry into the atmosphere of LV-426 apparently causes no heat buildup at all.
  • Averted in two instances in the Star Wars films:
    • Revenge of the Sith has the "not to worry, we are still flying half the ship" incident, wherein they even have firefighting ships swoop in alongside to put out the fires of reentry before Anakin crash-lands.
    • In The Empire Strikes Back, the probe droid sent to Hoth becomes a meteorite.
      • This may be an Invoked Trope (or a case of Fridge Brilliance at least), since EU materials seem to indicate ships normally don't glow on reentry. The logic would be "ships don't glow" → "object glows" → "object is not a ship".
    • See also the Star Wars Expanded Universe examples below.


Literature

  • Averted in The Nights Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton. During an orbital engagement, one of the mercenary starships grazes the atmosphere to destroy the missiles chasing it, as they're designed for deep space (the starship was also designed for space, but was spherical). Even with being relatively aerodynamic, having internal strengthening forcefields, and only using the upper atmosphere, the ship was nearly destroyed.
  • In the Star Wars Expanded Universe novel Starfighters Of Adumar, it's noted that an X-Wing's shields protect it from reentry. Thus, Wedge can maintain a higher speed on his entry to Adumar's atmosphere than the unshielded Blades escorting him can.
    • Other parts of the SWEU, including some books in the same series, use the friction of atmospheric reentry in various ways. Attaching extra hulls to burn up during the descent lets a squadron of X-Wings disguise itself as part of a meteorite shower, letting them infiltrate a hostile world. In the New Jedi Order, the Wraiths have developed single-person reentry pods with ablation shielding for basically the same purpose.
    • In Han Solo at Star's End, the Millennium Falcon uses its shields to offset the heat of entering the atmosphere of Duroon.
  • Averted very hard indeed in Use of Weapons. When a Culture module wants to make a swift getaway from a planet's surface, it displaces (teleports) away the air in front of it to behind it as fast as it's moving. It thus makes a multi-mach trip to orbit through a nice, frictionless, self-created vacuum. Of course, The Culture are Sufficiently Advanced Aliens.


Live Action TV


Video Games

  • A stock ending for Sonic the Hedgehog games is for Sonic to fall to the planet after blowing up a space station. Sonic 2 shows Sonic actually fly to space on the outside of a ship. Sonic Adventure 2 partly corrects the astronomy by making it possible for characters to die if they hit the atmosphere (Eggman even uses it in an attempt to eliminate Sonic). However, the atmosphere's height varies according to how high the platforms above it are.
    • Not really. All that changes is how long until your character appears to enter the atmosphere- and it has to do with how many platforms are below you, in order to give you a chance to return to a lower part of the stage.
  • Averted in Mass Effect 2, in which Shepard is quite badly killed by reentry by him/herself in a space suit. Of course, the space suit ensured s/he was intact enough to be rebuilt...
  • Super Mario Galaxy, obviously.
  • Most of the Kirby games are like this.
  • Averted in Freelancer. Planets have docking rings to guide them safely to the surface and any ship attempting direct entry to a planet will flare up and eventually be destroyed. Of course, it is also an example of Gameplay and Story Integration.
  • Zig-Zagged in Star Trek Bridge Commander. Moving too close to a planet will cause an orange, fiery halo to appear around your shields - even if your shields are down - until you splat into the planet. No matter how fast you're travelling, though, you'll never burn up or suffer damage unless you actually hit the planet. Given that planets in this sector are about 200km in diameter, they don't have very thick atmospheres.
  • Averted in Star Trek Klingon Academy. Although flying slowly through a planet's atmosphere provides good camouflage, plowing ahead in your Bird of Prey at high impulse without shields is an excellent way to become a meteor and fail your mission.
  • Halo plays it straight and averts it. Drop Pods burn up on re-entry as one would expect. Pelican dropships, on the other hand...
  • Frontier: First Encounters got it averted, in that a manual landing requires to keep an eye on approach velocity and either your ship has Atmospheric Shielding installed (and it's tough enough to work as armor) or the next reentry will end rather prematurely and spectacularly.


Webcomics

  • Averted in Starslip when a recurring antagonist gets blown out an airlock by Vanderbeam, who was sick of the antagonist's recurrences: [1]
  • Averted and discussed in Freefall.


Western Animation

  • Futurama, unusually for a comedy series, does this right: When Bender the robot falls to Earth from space, he's hot enough to instantly melt snow several meters away.
    • Dolomite in Futurama is incredibly heat resistant and tough. Bender is made of just enough that he can swim around in magma from the Earth's core for short periods and only be somewhat negatively affected. That dosen't explain how the backpack with a parachute in it survived re-entry however.
    • In episode two their ship leaves the Earth's atmosphere in about a second.
      • One musn't forget that the ship's engine moves the universe around it. Apparently the movement of the universe doesn't generate friction.
      • Yes, their spaceship is, oddly enough, better designed for space travel than their bending robot.
  • The less said about the Professor's wooden spaceship that takes the Castaways to Gilligan's Planet the better.
  • Averted in the Cars Toon "Moon Mater", which is about Mater becoming a moon rover as part of a moon mission to rescue an "autonaut" named Impala XIII, who was trapped inside a crater on the Moon. On the way back to Earth, Mater (while narrating) actually adds his friend Lightning Mc Queen into his story, since Mc Queen thinks that Mater is making things up. Lightning Mc Queen is portrayed here as a reentry probe, and as he is heading back toward Earth, his body starts to heat up rapidly because of friction, and as a result he start screaming "Ow! Hot! Hot! Hot! Hot! Hot!" before finally landing in the ocean and sighing in relief.
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