April 7, 2009

NASA selects Orion heat shield material

U.S. space agency scientists say they've selected the heat shield material that will protect a new generation of astronauts when they return from the moon.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said after extensive study, it chose the Avcoat ablator system for the Orion crew module.

Orion is part of NASA's Constellation Program -- the country's next-generation spacecraft system. The Orion crew module is to begin carrying astronauts to the International Space Station in 2015 and to the moon in 2020.

Orion will face extreme conditions during its voyage to the moon and on the journey home. NASA said, noting that on the return through Earth's atmosphere, the module will encounter 5,000-degree Fahrenheit temperatures -- a heating rate as much as five times more extreme than rates for missions returning from the International Space Station.

NASA made a significant technology development effort, conducted thousands of tests, and tapped into the facilities, talents and resources across the agency to understand how these materials would perform on Orion's five-meter (16-foot) wide heat shield, said James Reuther, the study's manager. We manufactured full-scale demonstrations to prove they could be efficiently and reliably produced for Orion.

NASA said the Lockheed Martin Corp. will continue development of Avcoat in partnership with the material's subcontractor, Textron Defense Systems of Wilmington, Mass.