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July 10th, 2012

Video: NASA engineers test inflatable reentry heat shield prior to flight test

Published on July 10th, 2012 | By: Eileen De Guire

NASA flight engineers put an inflatable heat shield through extensive ground testing in advance of a flight demonstration of the Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment. Credit: NASA Langley Research Center.

NASA flight engineers are getting ready to launch a flight demonstration of the Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment, or IRVE-3. The flight test window is July 20-24, and the launch will be at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

The IRVE-3 is an inflatable heat shield that is designed to survive reentry and is envisioned as a way to get payloads down from the International Space Station.

The mushroom-like heat shield needs to be flexible, inflatable and able to withstand reentry temperatures of up to 1,260°C (2,300°F). According to a story on NASA’s website, the temperatures requirements are less than for traditional heat shields, “Specific locations on a flexible heat shield don’t get as hot as they do on current spacecraft aeroshells because an inflatable is so much larger in diameter it slows down earlier and the heat is spread over a larger surface area.”

The need for flexibility means the heat shield is a fabric, and the website says many combinations of layered materials were tried. The IRVE is being tested with a layered heat shield made of Nextel (3M’s woven ceramic fabric), Pyrogel (Aspen Aerogel’s high-termperature silicon aerogel blanket) and Kapton (a polyimide film developed by DuPont).

The video highlights the three-years of design and ground testing leading up to the July test flight, including a “hold-your-breath-is-it-working?” moment.

Engineers also have in mind that the technology could have a role in future planetary missions. An inflatable heat shield could, for example, accommodate larger payload than other vehicles under consideration and could deliver heavier (or maybe just more) scientific instrumentation to remote planets.

This project comes under NASA’s category of technologies that it refers to as “Game Changing Technology,” which is tasked to “identify and rapidly mature innovative, high-impact capabilities and technologies and complement them with “new start” and competitively selected projects by using a balanced approach of guided technology development efforts and competitively selected efforts from across NASA, academia, industry and other government agencies.” The program is aligned into seven themes:

• Safe and Reliable Human Exploration;
• Intelligent Space Operations;
• Advanced Materials, Structures and Manufacturing;
• Affordable Space Exploration;
• Revolutionary Robotic Systems;
• Advanced Measurement, Navigation and Communication Systems; and
• Future Energy Systems.

And, finally, since this on the topic of ceramic fabrics, I want to give another plug about the August issue of the Bulletin that will cover several innovations in ceramic hybrid fabrics.


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