NASA blows up inflatable heat shield

NASA said the test was the first time anyone has successfully flown an inflatable spacecraft reentry vehicle.

inflatable heat shield
NASA said it had successfully tested an inflatable heat shield designed to slow and protect spacecraft as they blast through the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds.

The 1,400lb, Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment, or IRVE, was vacuum-packed into a 15-inch diameter payload "shroud" and launched on a small sounding rocket from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. The 10-foot diameter heat shield, made of several layers of silicone-coated industrial fabric, inflated with nitrogen to a mushroom shape in space several minutes after liftoff. NASA said the test was the first time anyone has successfully flown an inflatable reentry vehicle.

According to the cameras and sensors on board, the heat shield expanded to its full size and went into a high-speed free fall. The key focus of the research came about six and a half minutes into the flight, at an altitude of about 50 miles, when the aeroshell re-entered Earth's atmosphere and experienced its peak heating and pressure measurements for a period of about 30 seconds.

An on board telemetry system captured data from instruments during the test and broadcast the information to engineers on the ground in real time. The technology demonstrator splashed down and sank in the Atlantic Ocean about 90 miles east of Virginia's Wallops Island.

Such inflatable heat shields hold promise for future planetary missions, according to NASA. To land more mass on Mars at higher surface elevations, for instance, mission planners need to maximize the drag area of the entry system. The larger the diameter of the aeroshell, the bigger the payload can be, NASA stated.

Currently, the size of the rigid heat shield available for any given mission is limited by the diameter of the launch vehicle's payload fairing, which in turn limits the payload size and weight, the number of science instruments that can be carried, and the resulting productivity of the mission. An inflatable heat shield would not be constrained by the fairing diameter and would allow a larger, more capable payload to be flown, NASA stated.

Earlier this year NASA selected the heat shield material that will protect future space explorers from the hellish heat of space travel.

The space agency went with a technology it was quite familiar with, a fiberglass, silica, epoxy combination known as Avcoat. The heat protection technology was used on the current space shuttle missions as well as the Apollo spacecrafts, NASA said.

NASA defines the Avcoat ablator system as having "silica fibers with an epoxy-novalic resin filled in a fiberglass-phenolic honeycomb" and is manufactured directly onto the heat shield which is then attached to the crew module during spacecraft assembly.

On the blistering return through Earth's atmosphere, the module will encounter temperatures as high as 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Heating rates may be up to five times more extreme than rates for missions returning from the International Space Station, NASA said. Orion's heat shield, the dish-shaped thermal protection system at the base of the spacecraft, will endure the most heat and will erode, or "ablate," in a controlled fashion, sending heat away from the crew module during its descent through the atmosphere.

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