(Sen) - An innovative inflatable heat shield that could protect future returning space missions has been successfully tested after being launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility yesterday.
The Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) is a large heat shield that was developed by NASA’s Space Technology Program as part of the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD) Project.
The test was performed in order to prove that an inflatable outer shell can be utilised by a spacecraft when it is re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere - for example returning cargo from the International Space Station. The inflatable shield acts to slow and protect the craft travelling at hypersonic speeds up to 12,200 kilometres per hour.
IRVE-3 was preceded by IRVE-2, which had already shown that an inflatable heat shield could survive re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. However, the latest experiment had a heavier payload, meaning the heat of re-entry that it had to withstand was much greater.
IRVE-3 was launched at 07:01 local time on 23 July via a three stage Black Brant sounding rocket. The experiment consists of a cone of uninflated rings that are blanketed by layers of heat resistant material.
Six minutes after being launched, the inflatable heat shield and its payload separated from the launch vehicle. The separation from the launch vehicle’s 56 centimetre nose cone occurred 450 kilometres over the Atlantic Ocean.
Nitrogen was pumped into the aeroshell until its shape resembled a mushroom nearly three metres in diameter. The IRVE-3 then fell at hypersonic speeds back through the Earth’s atmosphere. Four onboard cameras were used to confirm that the aeroshell held its shape despite battling the intense heat and forces of re-entry. In addition, temperature and pressure were also recorded by onboard instruments. The data gathered from the test will help to develop the technology further.
"It's great to see the initial results indicate we had a successful test of the hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator," said deputy director of NASA's Space Technology Program James Reuther. "This demonstration flight goes a long way toward showing the value of these technologies to serve as atmospheric entry heat shields for future space."
The entire flight lasted twenty minutes, before IRVE-3 splashed down in the Atlantic. A U.S. Navy Stiletto boat will try to retrieve the heat shield.
"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. "We are pushing the boundaries with this flight. We look forward to future test launches of even bigger inflatable aeroshells."
Private space company Bigelow Aerospace has also been working on inflatable technologies and has launched a number of test expandable modules into orbit that could be developed into orbiting "hotels".