Successful test for NASA’s inflatable heat shield

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An inflatable heat shield developed by NASA’s Space Technology Program has survived moving through Earth’s atmosphere while travelling at speeds up to 7,600mph.

The Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) was launched by sounding rocket at 0701 Monday from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia.

According to NASA, the purpose of the IRVE-3 test was to show that a space capsule can use an inflatable outer shell 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 International Space Station.

In a statement, James Reuther, deputy director of NASA’s Space Technology Program, said: ‘It’s great to see the initial results indicate we had a successful test of the hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator.

‘This demonstration flight 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 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 six minutes into the flight the 680lb inflatable aeroshell, or heat shield, and its payload separated from the launch vehicle’s 22in-diameter nose cone about 280 miles over the Atlantic Ocean.

An inflation system pumped nitrogen into the IRVE-3 aeroshell until it expanded to almost 10ft in diameter. Then the aeroshell fell at hypersonic speeds through Earth’s atmosphere.

Engineers in the Wallops control room watched as four on-board cameras confirmed the inflatable shield held its shape despite the force and high heat of re-entry. Onboard instruments provided temperature and pressure data, and researchers will study that information to help develop future inflatable heat shield 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 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, Virginia. ‘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 said to be subjected to a much higher re-entry heat.

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.