NASA Launches New Technology: An Inflatable Heat Shield

Aug 17, 2009
Black Brant 9 rocket carrying the Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment launches from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

A successful NASA flight test Monday demonstrated how a spacecraft returning to Earth can use an inflatable heat shield to slow and protect itself as it enters the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds.

The 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 on Wallops Island, Va., at 8:52 a.m. EDT. 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.

The Black Brant 9 rocket took approximately four minutes to lift the experiment to an altitude of 131 miles. Less than a minute later it was released from its cover and started inflating on schedule at 124 miles up. The inflation of the shield took less than 90 seconds.

"Our inflation system, which is essentially a glorified scuba tank, worked flawlessly and so did the flexible aeroshell," said Neil Cheatwood, IRVE principal investigator and chief scientist for the Hypersonics Project at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. "We're really excited today because this is 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.

"This was a small-scale demonstrator," said Mary Beth Wusk, IRVE project manager, based at Langley. "Now that we've proven the concept, we'd like to build more advanced aeroshells capable of handling higher heat rates."

Inflatable heat shields hold promise for future planetary missions, according to researchers. 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.

Provided by JPL/ (news : web)

Explore further: Curiosity brushes 'Bonanza king' target anticipating fourth red planet rock drilling

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Rocket to Launch Inflatable Re-entry Capsule

Aug 14, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Inflatable aircraft are not a new idea. Hot air balloons have been around for more than two centuries and blimps are a common sight over many sports stadiums. But it's hard to imagine an inflatable ...

Heat Shield Readied for Next Mars Rover

Jul 10, 2009

Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, has finished building and testing the heat shield for protecting the Curiosity rover of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory project. This heat shield is even larger than the ...

Phoenix Images Discarded Heat Shield

Sep 18, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- A new color high-resolution image from the Phoenix Mars Lander shows its crumpled heat shield about 150 meters away from the spacecraft.

Recommended for you

Australian amateur Terry Lovejoy discovers new comet

13 hours ago

It's confirmed! Australian amateur astronomer Terry Lovejoy just discovered his fifth comet, C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy). He found it August 17th using a Celestron C8 fitted with a CCD camera at his roll-off roof ...

Students see world from station crew's point of view

Aug 19, 2014

NASA is helping students examine their home planet from space without ever leaving the ground, giving them a global perspective by going beyond a map attached to a sphere on a pedestal. The Sally Ride Earth ...

Mars deep down

Aug 19, 2014

Scarring the southern highlands of Mars is one of the Solar System's largest impact basins: Hellas, with a diameter of 2300 km and a depth of over 7 km.

User comments : 0