NASA Launches Experimental Heat Shield Capsule
July 23, 2012

NASA Launches Experimental Heat Shield Capsule

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

An rocket carrying an experimental project blasted off from the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia this morning just after 7 a.m. EST.

The Black Brant XI rocket was carrying NASA´s Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE). The demonstration flight was carried out to test a tracking system and heat shield. The rocket climbed to about 280 miles and after separation the experimental equipment made splash down about 20 minutes later of the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina in the Atlantic.

The successful test flight has shown that a spacecraft returning to Earth can use an inflatable heat shield to slow and protect itself as it enters the atmosphere traveling at hypersonic speeds. According to engineers at NASA´s Langley Research Center, this has been the first time anyone has successfully flown an inflatable reentry capsule.

IRVE was vacuum-packed into a 22-inch diameter payload and launched on the small sounding rocket. Once it reached the expected altitude, the 10-foot diameter heat shield, composed of several layers of silicone-coated industrial fabric, inflated with nitrogen into a mushroom shape.

Four onboard cameras captured the descent of the experimental craft as it plummeted at hypersonic speed back through the Earth´s atmosphere. Engineers watched closely as it fell, confirming that the inflatable shield held its shape despite the force and high heat of reentry. The capsule also had instruments to measure temperature and pressure.

“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.”

After splashdown a high-speed US Navy Stiletto boat made its way to the area to attempt a retrieval.

“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.”

The IRVE-3 mission was a follow-up to the successful IRVE-2 mission, which showed that an inflatable heat shield could survive intact after falling through the Earth´s atmosphere. IRVE-3 was essentially the same size as IRVE-2, but had a heavier payload and was subjected to a much higher reentry heat, similar to what a heat shield might encounter in space.

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. Langley developed and manages the IRVE-3 and HIAD programs.