July 24 - An experimental heat shield developed by NASA has survived a trip through Earth's atmosphere while travelling at hypersonic speeds up to 7,600 mph (12,231 kph). In a test flight, the Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) successfully demonstrated that an inflatable outer shell can protect a space capsule as it enters an atmosphere during planetary entry and descent, or as it returns to Earth with cargo from the International Space Station. Rob Muir reports.
It was the culmination of three years planning, but finally the the experimental inflatable re-entry vehicle was ready for lift-0ff IRVE-3 is the latest version of an inflatable heat shield, designed to protect space capsules from the extreme temperatures and stresses of reentry at hypersonic speed. It's seen as an inexpensive alternative to current heat shield systems..but this test, lasting just twenty minutes, would tell engineers on the ground exactly how well it works. At an altitude of 280 miles above the Atlantic Ocean, the heat shield was deployed. An inflation system pumped nitrogen into the heat resistant aeroshell, inflating it to a diameter of about ten feet. Then, the vehicle turned 180 degrees, and began its descent, reaching a speed of 7600 mph as it plummeted back through Earth's atmosphere. And throughout the re-entry process IRVE-3 kept its shape, with all systems working as planned before the capsule splashed down off the North Carolina coast. NASA says the test demonstrates the viability of inflatable heat shields...and more tests with larger versions are planned. Rob Muir, Reuters.