NASA tests heat shield balloons, perfect for Mars landing party

NASA is calling the test flight of its new heat shield made from high-tech balloons an "unqualified success." The small capsule, called the Inflatable Re-Entry Vehicle Experiment 3 (IRVE-3), deployed its inflatable heat shield and re-entered Earth's atmosphere from suborbital space at a screaming hypersonic speed of Mach 10.

A suborbital rocket carrying the new system launched from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA this past Monday, and afterward the capsule and heat shield splashed down and were recovered in the Atlantic. (You can see the launch here)

The successful test flight is, "a first step for how we explore other worlds," Steve Jurczyk said in a post-mission briefing. Jurczyk is deputy director of NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA.

Balloons probably aren't the first thing one would think of as successful protective shield for re-entry, yet inflatable tech — to create space stations, for example — is showing itself as a tough-enough tool for space applications. And for going to Mars. The balloons might help us land on Mars one day, and the team at NASA has been working on the idea for roughly nine years.

Here's why balloons would help. We're going to need to land large items and great masses on missions the Red Planet, but it has a very tricky atmosphere. It's thin, but not so thin that scientists can ignore it as a factor in landings.

The idea behind the inflatable heat shield is that they may be able to land greater masses — like larger payloads with human cargo and supplies. Plus they could potentially land at higher altitudes on Mars.

Here's how. The IRVE-3 is a cone made of nitrogen gas inflatable rings wrapped in layers of high-tech thermal blankets. The blankets spread out to protect the rings and the space capsule from the heat generated by the friction of re-entry into the atmosphere.

The prototype test saw the 680-pound IRVE-3 heat shield packed into a 22-inch nose cone atop a Black Brant 4 rocket. After launch, the IRVE-3 and its capsule separated from the booster six minutes into the flight and 280 miles into the atmosphere. The gas inflated the IRVE-3 heat shield like a giant mushroom spreading 10 feet across, essentially cocooning the capsule inside. What we call a giant mushroom, NASA prefers to call an aeroshell.

The entire flight was recorded via four on-board cameras. They recorded the IRVE-3 and capsule as they headed back to Earth, withstanding 20 Gs of force and temperatures up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it dropped back into our atmosphere at hypersonic speed — some 6,000 mph.

That's not bad for a giant, nitrogen inflated mushroom shell on a 20-minute flight. NASA thought so too:

"We had a really great flight today," James Reuther, deputy director of NASA's Space Technology Program, told reporters in a news briefing on July 23. "Initial indications are we got good data. Everything performed as well, or better, than expected."

The 17 million test flight was overseen by NASA's Langley Research Center, and the team behind it spent the last three years preparing for the groundbreaking flight. 2009 was their last successful IRVE flight, but it had a much lower payload design and was not subject to as intense re-entry heat.

Looks like the third time is the charm for NASA, though this is hardly likely to be their last effort with the IRVE, as we increasingly look towards Mars for research and exploration.
We'll likely see bigger and better "mushroom" shaped aeroshells sprouting up in as part of NASA's mission in the near future — not bad for a program that once relied on old fashioned ceramic heat shields for the Space Shuttle!

NASA, via LiveScience

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