NASA Launches Hypersonic Inflatable Heat Shield Prototype

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NASA launched a novel new heat shield prototype on a successful test flight Monday (July 23), a mission that sent a high-tech space balloon streaking through Earth's atmosphere at hypersonic speeds of up Mach 10.

The test flight blasted off atop a suborbital rocket at 7:01 a.m. EDT (1101 GMT) from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. It sent a small capsule, called the Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment 3 (IRVE-3) into suborbital space, which deployed the inflatable heat shield and then plunged back down through Earth's atmosphere to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean.

The mission, according to NASA, was an unqualified success and will help shape new re-entry systems for future spacecraft.

"It's great to see the initial results indicate we had a successful test of the hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator," said James Reuther, deputy director of NASA's Space Technology Program, in a statement. "This demonstration flight goes a long way toward showing the value of these technologies to serve as atmospheric entry heat shields for future space." [Photos: NASA's Inflatable Heat Shield Ideas for Spaceships]

The IRVE-3 heat shield is a cone made up of inflatable rings that are wrapped in layers of high-tech thermal blankets to protect it (and its space capsule) from the searing heat of re-entry through Earth's atmosphere. The 680-pound (308-kg) heat shield prototype was packed inside a 22-inch wide (56-centimeter) nose cone for the test flight. It expanded to a heat shield 10 feet (3 meters) across during the flight.

During the test, which was overseen by  NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., the IRVE-3 heat shield launched into space atop a Black Brant 4 rocket and separated from the booster six minutes later about 280 miles (450 kilometers) above the Atlantic Ocean. IRVE-3 then inflated itself with nitrogen gas as expected, creating a mushroom-shaped heat shield known as an aeroshell.

Four cameras aboard the IRVE-3 prototype recorded the capsule's plunge back to Earth, proving that its inflatable heat shield successfully withstood scorching of about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (537 degrees Celsius) during re-entry at hypersonic speeds of up to 6,000 mph (9,656 kph). The IRVE-3 heat shield splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina, where a high-speed U.S. Navy Stiletto boat crew was expected to retrieve it. From launch to splashdown, the entire spaceflight took about 20 minutes.

This isn't the first time NASA has launched an inflatable heat shield into space.

The first IRVE experiment launched in 2007, but failed due to a booster failure. In 2009, the space agency successfully flew the IRVE-2 inflatable heat shield. The IRVE-3 payload, however, is heavier than the IRVE-2 design, and was subjected to more extreme re-entry heating than its predecessor.

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