23 July 2012

Inflatable Reentry Heat Shield Survives Hypersonic Test

IRVE-3, a cone of uninflated rings covered by a thermal blanket of layers of heat-resistant materials, launched from a three-stage Black Brant rocket for its suborbital flight. About six minutes into the flight the 680lb inflatable aeroshell, or heat shield, and its payload separated from the launch vehicle’s 22in-diameter nose cone about 280 miles over the Atlantic Ocean.

An inflation system pumped nitrogen into the IRVE-3 aeroshell until it expanded to almost 10ft in diameter. Then the aeroshell fell at hypersonic speeds through Earth’s atmosphere.

Engineers in the Wallops control room watched as four on-board cameras confirmed the inflatable shield held its shape despite the force and high heat of re-entry. Onboard instruments provided temperature and pressure data, and researchers will study that information to help develop future inflatable heat shield designs.

After its flight, IRVE-3 fell into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina. From launch to splashdown, the flight lasted about 20 minutes. _Engineer

An inflatable heat shield might lend more versatility to reentry vehicle design. This type of research may also provide valuable data to hypersonic flight engineers and designers.

More from Universe Today:
A prototype for a large inflatable heat shield that could one day be used for landing large payloads on Mars was tested successfully on July 23, 2012, surviving a hypersonic speeds through Earth’s atmosphere. The Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) traveled at speeds up to 12,231 km/h (7,600 mph) after launching on a sounding rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia.

“We had a really great flight today,” said James Reuther, deputy director of NASA’s Space Technology Program, after the test flight. “Initial indications are we got good data. Everything performed as well, or better, than expected.

IRVE-3 is a cone of uninflated high-tech rings covered by a thermal blanket of layers of heat resistant materials. NASA said the purpose of the IRVE-3 test was to show that a space capsule can use an inflatable outer shell to slow and protect itself as it enters an atmosphere at hypersonic speed during planetary entry and descent, or as it returns to Earth with cargo from the International Space Station. A larger version has been proposed for landing larger payloads on Mars, such as future human missions.

Watch the video from the flight below. _Universe Today

More from Popsci

Mastering the perils of hypersonic atmospheric flight and reentry is one of the large challenges confronting the coming human expansion into space. Up until now, it has been difficult to find the optimal outer skin for re-usable hypersonic and reentry craft. But given the potential rewards of developing outer space resources and infrastructure, such obstacles are not likely to hold back aerospace engineers for long.

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