NASA successfully tests hypersonic inflatable heat shield

July 23, 2012, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
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. Credit: NASA Wallops

A large inflatable heat shield developed by NASA's Space Technology Program has successfully survived a trip through Earth's atmosphere while travelling at hypersonic speeds up to 7,600 mph.

The Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) was launched by at 7:01 a.m. Monday from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. The purpose of the IRVE-3 test was to show that a can use an inflatable to slow and protect itself as it enters an atmosphere at hypersonic speed during planetary entry and descent, or as it returns to Earth with cargo from the .

"It's great to see the initial results indicate we had a successful test of the hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator," said James Reuther, deputy director of NASA's Space Technology Program. "This goes a long way toward showing the value of these technologies to serve as atmospheric entry heat shields for future space."

IRVE-3, a cone of uninflated high-tech rings covered by a thermal blanket of layers of heat resistant materials, launched from a three-stage Black Brant rocket for its suborbital flight. About 6 minutes into the flight, as planned, the 680-pound inflatable aeroshell, or , and its payload separated from the 's 22-inch-diameter nose cone about 280 miles over the Atlantic Ocean.

An inflation system pumped nitrogen into the IRVE-3 aeroshell until it expanded to a mushroom shape almost 10 feet in diameter. Then the plummeted at hypersonic speeds through Earth's atmosphere. Engineers in the Wallops control room watched as four onboard cameras confirmed the inflatable shield held its shape despite the force and high heat of reentry. Onboard instruments provided temperature and pressure data. Researchers will study that information to help develop future designs.

After its flight, IRVE-3 fell into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina. From launch to splashdown, the flight lasted about 20 minutes. A high-speed U.S. Navy Stiletto boat is in the area with a crew that will attempt to retrieve IRVE-3. The Stiletto is a maritime demonstration craft operated by the Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock, Combatant Craft Division, and is based at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Ft Story, Va.

"A team of NASA engineers and technicians spent the last three years preparing for the IRVE-3 flight," said Lesa Roe, director of NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. "We are pushing the boundaries with this flight. We look forward to future test launches of even bigger inflatable aeroshells."

This test was a follow-on to the successful IRVE-2, which showed an inflatable heat shield could survive intact after coming through Earth's atmosphere. IRVE-3 was the same size as IRVE-2, but had a heavier payload and was subjected to a much higher re-entry heat, more like what a heat shield might encounter in space.

IRVE-3 is part of the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD) Project within the Game Changing Development Program, part of NASA's Space Technology Program. Langley developed and manages the IRVE-3 and HIAD programs.

Explore further: NASA hypersonic Inflatable Tech Test now set for launch July 22

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not rated yet Jul 24, 2012
This is very cool. We really need something that can slow a heavier load on its way down to Mars. I wonder if they have looked at a hybrid, with a standard solid heat shield front and center, then this inflatable system around/behind it to make it bigger?
not rated yet Jul 24, 2012
Of course they would need a much larger system for Mars, with its thinner atmosphere. I wonder if that thinner atmosphere would develop as much heat as ours does. I'd imagine on Mars a larger sphere would develop a larger though less dense shockwave.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 24, 2012
I wonder if that thinner atmosphere would develop as much heat as ours does. I'd imagine on Mars a larger sphere would develop a larger though less dense shockwave.

It's actually counter-intuitive. You would think the thin atmosphere and 1/3rd gravity would make it easier, but it doesn't. I explained this on another thread last week. Here on earth the atmosphere is tall, so you can start to slow down sooner. Keep in mind that gravity increases exponentially as you go down. On Mars, the top of the atmosphere is so much closer to the ground that your spacecraft is deep inside the gravity before it can stop speeding up and start slowing down. The heat is generated is a simple calculation of how much mass you have, how fast it's moving and how much time you have to slow down. That tells you how much friction you need to generate in order to slow down, and that tells you how much heat you'll get. That's a bit over-simplified, but I'm sure you get the general idea.
5 / 5 (1) Jul 24, 2012
In the case of Mars, it boils down to not having very much time, so for a heavy spacecraft, you need to generate a LOT of friction. That means you need a much larger heat shield (and parachute) on Mars than you would for the same mass here on Earth. Nasa has claimed that Mars is actually the hardest place to land a spacecraft in the solar system.

On a side note, if you have an XBox360 with Kinect, NASA/JPL created a free game that you can download on xbox live. You guide Curiosity down to its landing to "win" the game. There's an interview video on the game's main menu as well as some cool pictures and stuff, and a real-time landing countdown timer on the menu page. Cool stuff.
not rated yet Jul 25, 2012
Sorry, only have a PS3 and that is 98% for folding@home. Sounds like fun though.

They also need to come in at a low angle to use as much of the atmosphere as is available for deceleration, or negative acceleration if you're a cup half empty kinda guy.
not rated yet Jul 25, 2012
They also need to come in at a low angle to use as much of the atmosphere as is available for deceleration, or negative acceleration if you're a cup half empty kinda guy

That's correct, but there goes the low atmosphere causing trouble again. Entry is a parabolic curve. Until you hit atmosphere the spacecraft is a ballistic projectile, so there's not a lot of wiggle room there either.
not rated yet Jul 26, 2012
Here's a good one to noodle over: When you're trying to slow down and land on Mars, when you are approaching from Earth, do you approach on the front side (to the left) or the back side (right)? One will slow you down, and the other will speed you up, and one will place you opposite the planet's rotation while the other will place you in the same direction as the planet's rotation.
not rated yet Jul 27, 2012
Come in from West to East, opposite of rotation, just as we do on earth.

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