August 17, 2009

NASA demonstrates inflatable heat shield

The U.S. space agency has demonstrated how a spacecraft can use an inflatable heat shield to slow and protect itself during re-entry to Earth's atmosphere.

The Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment was launched on a small sounding rocket from NASA's Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia at 8:52 a.m. EDT Monday. The 10-foot diameter heat shield, made of several layers of silicone-coated industrial fabric, inflated with nitrogen to a mushroom shape in space several minutes after liftoff.

Our inflation system, which is essentially a glorified scuba tank, worked flawlessly and so did the flexible aeroshell, said Neil Cheatwood, the experiment's principal investigator. We're really excited today because this is the first time anyone has successfully flown an inflatable re-entry vehicle.

The key focus of the research came about 6 1/2 minutes into the flight, at an altitude of about 50 miles, when the aeroshell re-entered Earth's atmosphere and experienced its peak heating and pressure measurements for a period of about 30 seconds.

The technology demonstrator splashed down and sank in the Atlantic Ocean about 90 miles east of Virginia's Wallops Island.

This was a small-scale demonstrator, Mary Beth Wusk, the experiment's project manager said. Now that we've proven the concept, we'd like to build more advanced aeroshells capable of handling higher heat rates.