NASA debuts new foldable carbon fabric heat shield

NASA has undertaken the first flight test of its new carbon fabric foldable heat shield, a technology that could enable more expansive interplanetary missions.

carbon fabric
ADEPT flight hardware on bench in lab in the Aerothermodynamics Branch at NASA Ames Research Center Silicon Valley, CA. (Credit: NASA Ames Research Center/Dominic Hart)

Known as ADEPT ( Adaptable Deployable Entry Placement Technology), the device could replace the rigid plastic aeroshell heat shields that are currently used to protect space vehicles on atmospheric entry. Whereas traditional aeroshells gradually degrade in layers to protect vehicles from temperatures of around 3,000°C, ADEPT uses a flexible carbon fabric skin to deflect this heat. What’s more, the fabric can be folded up like an umbrella around its more rigid deployment system of ribs and struts, allowing much larger heat shields to be deployed within existing rocket systems. According to NASA, the technology could enable larger missions to Venus, Mars or Titan.

“Carbon fabric has been the major recent breakthrough enabling this technology, as it utilises pure carbon yarns that are woven three-dimensionally to give you a very durable surface,” said Paul Wercinski, ADEPT project manager at NASA’s Ames Research Centre in California’s Silicon Valley. “Carbon is a wonderful material for high temperature applications.”

The first test of the system took place this week following a launch from Spaceport America in New Mexico aboard a UP Aerospace suborbital SpaceLoft rocket. ADEPT was launched in a folded configuration then separated from the rocket roughly 60 miles above the Earth. Re-entry speeds from this height only reach around 2,300 mph, which is not enough to really test the device’s shielding abilities. The primary purpose of the launch, however, was to explore ADEPT’s aerodynamic stability and its deployment mechanism.

“For a deployable like ADEPT, you can do ground-based testing, but ultimately, a flight test demonstrates end-to-end functionality – surviving launch environments, deploying in zero gravity and the vacuum of space, holding that rigid shape and then entering, in our case, Earth’s atmosphere,” said Wercinski.

The next steps for ADEPT are to develop and conduct a test for an Earth entry at higher “orbital” speeds, roughly 17,000 miles per hour.