Friday, July 27, 2012

NASA launches hypersonic inflatable heat shield prototype

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 to 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.

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

The IRVE-3 flight was designed to demonstrate how the technology could be used for heat shields during atmospheric entries on future space missions.

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

"As far as the applicability of the technology, [we were] originally motivated to do this to allow us to potentially land more masses at Mars," said Neil Cheatwood, IRVE-3 principal investigator at Langley Research Center. "Mars is a very challenging destination. It has a very thin atmosphere — too much of an atmosphere to ignore, but not enough for us to do the things we would at other planets. That was our motivation about nine years ago when we started doing this stuff."

With inflatable heat shields, scientists may be able to land at higher altitudes on Mars, or use the IRVE-3 technology to one day carry larger payloads, including humans, to the surface of the Red Planet, Cheatwood added.