NASA Successfully Tests Inflatable Heat Shield Prototype

By Chelsea Whyte on July 24, 2012 1:39 AM EDT

heat shield test
The Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) was launched by sounding rocket at 7:01 a.m. Monday, July 23, 2012 from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. (Photo: NASA Wallops)

Using fabric to protect a spacecraft during the scorching temperatures of atmospheric re-entry may sound like a crazy idea, but it could work. NASA tested a new, inflatable heat shield that successfully survived a 7,600 mile-per-hour trip back through Earth's atmosphere.  

"We had a really great flight today," said deputy director of NASA's Space Technology Program James Reuther after the test flight, according to The Christian Science Monitor. "Initial indications are we got good data. Everything performed as well, or better, than expected."

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The Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) was launched by sounding rocket at 7:01 a.m. Monday from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. The experimental launch tested the shield's ability to withstand planetary entry and descent at hypersonic speed.

"As far as the applicability of the technology, [we were] originally motivated to do this to allow us to potentially land more masses at Mars," said Neil Cheatwood, IRVE-3 principal investigator at Langley Research Center, according to MSNBC. "Mars is a very challenging destination. It has a very thin atmosphere - too much of an atmosphere to ignore, but not enough for us to do the things we would at other planets. That was our motivation about nine years ago when we started doing this stuff."

IRVE-3 is made of layers of silicone-coated industrial fabric, according to Space.com. As the tubes are inflated, they stretch out a thermal blanket covering them to create a heat shield known as an aeroshell. A larger version has been proposed for future landings on Mars.

During the test, an inflation system pumped nitrogen into the IRVE-3 aeroshell until it expanded to a mushroom shape almost 10 feet in diameter. Then the aeroshell plummeted at hypersonic speeds through Earth's atmosphere. Onboard instruments provided temperature and pressure data, which NASA researchers will study to help develop future inflatable heat shield designs.

After its 20-minute flight, IRVE-3 fell into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina. A high-speed U.S. Navy Stiletto boat is in the area with a crew that will attempt to retrieve IRVE-3.

"We're pushing the boundaries with this flight," said Lesa Roe, director of NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton. "We look forward to future test launches of even bigger inflatable aeroshells."

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