NASA to launch inflatable re-entry vehicle

  • Wallop's Island (VA) - Researchers from NASA's Langley Research Center are preparing to test a new kind of lightweight inflatable spacecraft technology demonstrator from a small sounding rocket later today.

    The Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE) is designed as an outer shell to slow and protect reentry vehicles as they hit the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. IRVE looks like a giant mushroom when it's inflated. For the test, the silicon-coated Kevlar aeroshell is vacuum-packed inside a 16-inch diameter cylinder, but once it unfurls and is pumped full of nitrogen it is almost 10 feet wide.

    Engineers say the concept could help land bigger objects on Mars. "We'd like to be able to land more mass on Mars," said Neil Cheatwood, IRVE's principal investigator and chief scientist of the Hypersonics Project within NASA's Fundamental Aeronautics Program.

    "To land more mass you have to have more drag. We need to maximize the drag area of the entry system. We want to make it as big as we can, but the limitation has been the launch vehicle diameter."

    According to Cheatwood, the idea of inflatable decelerators has been around for 40 years, but there were technical issues, including concerns about whether materials could withstand the heat of re-entry. Since then materials have advanced and because of numerous Mars missions, including rovers, landers and orbiters, there's more understanding of the Martian atmosphere.

    That means researchers can now test a subscale model of a compact inflatable heat shield with the help of a small two-stage rocket. The vehicle is a 50-foot Black Brant 9 that will lift IRVE outside the atmosphere to an altitude of about 130 miles. Engineers want to find out how the re-entry vehicle will perform on the way down.

    "The whole flight will be over in less than 20 minutes," said Mary Beth Wusk, IRVE project manager. "We separate from the rocket 90 seconds after launch and we begin inflation about three-and-a-half-minutes after that. Our critical data period after it inflates and re-enters through the atmosphere is only about 30 seconds long."

    Cameras and sensors on board will document the inflation and high-speed free fall and send information to researchers on the ground. After its brief flight IRVE will fall into the Atlantic Ocean about 90 miles down range from Wallops. No efforts will be made to retrieve the experiment or the sounding rocket.

    NASA plans to webcast the event here