Inflatable heat shield passes NASA test

Posted by Kate Taylor

NASA's successfully tested a revolutionary inflatable heat shield, taking it safely through Earth's atmosphere at up to 7,600 mph.

The Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) was launched by sounding rocket at 7:01 am yesterday from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia for its 20-minute test.

"It's great to see the initial results indicate we had a successful test of the hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator," says 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."

IRVE-3 consists of a cone of uninflated rings, covered by a thermal blanket made of layers of heat resistant materials. About six minutes into the flight, as planned, the 680-pound inflatable heat shield, and its payload separated from the launch vehicle's nose cone, about 280 miles over the Atlantic Ocean.

An inflation system pumped nitrogen into the IRVE-3 heat shield until it expanded to a mushroom shape around 10 feet across - and then plummeted at hypersonic speeds through Earth's atmosphere.
 Four onboard cameras confirmed that it held its shape despite the heat and force of reentry.

"A team of NASA engineers and technicians spent the last three years preparing for the IRVE-3 flight," says 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."

This test was a follow-on to the successful IRVE-2, successfully tested three years ago. IRVE-3 was the same size, but had a heavier payload and was subjected to a much higher - and more realistic - re-entry temperature.