NASA Successfully Tests Hypersonic Inflatable heat Shield

First Posted: Jul 24, 2012 06:08 AM EDT

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

On July 23 the Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) was launched by sounding rocket at 7:01 a.m from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. 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.

"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 demonstration flight goes a long way toward showing the value of these technologies to serve as atmospheric entry heat shields for future space."

 Uninflated high-tech rings covered by a thermal blanket of layers of heat resistant materials IRVE-3 was 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 heat shield, and its payload separated from the launch vehicle's 22-inch-diameter nose cone about 280 miles over the Atlantic Ocean.

An inflation system was used to pump nitrogen into the IRVE-3 aeroshell until it expanded to 10 feet in diameter. These aeroshells plunged at hypersonic speeds through Earth's atmosphere.

The IRVE3 feel into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina.  The flight lasted for about 20 minutes was a follow on to the IRVE2 which successfully demonstrated that an inflatable heat shield could survive intact after coming through Earth's atmosphere.  IRVE-3 that was the same size of IRVE-2, the only difference was that IRVE-3 had a heavier payload and was subjected to a much higher r entry heat.

"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."

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