Space

NASA tests IRVE-3 inflatable heat shield in hypersonic flight

The Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) is an inflatable heat shield effective at hypersonic velocities
The Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) is an inflatable heat shield effective at hypersonic velocities
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The Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) is an inflatable heat shield effective at hypersonic velocities
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The Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) is an inflatable heat shield effective at hypersonic velocities
The IRVE-3 rolls up into and stows in the nosecone of a sounding rocket before flight
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The IRVE-3 rolls up into and stows in the nosecone of a sounding rocket before flight
Inflated, the IRVE-3 reaches a diameter of 10 feet (3 m)
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Inflated, the IRVE-3 reaches a diameter of 10 feet (3 m)
The IRVE-3 is supported by a series of high-tech rings that inflate in flight
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The IRVE-3 is supported by a series of high-tech rings that inflate in flight

Legendary science fiction author Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) scored another hit in the prediction department on Monday, July 23, 2012 when NASA tested an inflatable heat shield that he foresaw back in the 1980s. The test of the Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) was launched by rocket into a suborbital trajectory from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA. The unmanned vehicle reached velocities of up to 7,600 mph (12,231 kph), yet was protected from atmospheric heating by the mushroom-shaped shield.

In 1984, MGM Studios released the film 2010: The Year We Make Contact. Based on Sir Arthur’s 1982 novel 2010: Odyssey Two and was a sequel to the film and book 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The new story concerned a joint American/Soviet mission to Jupiter to salvage the spaceship left abandoned in the previous installment. In one dramatic scene in 2010, Sir Arthur imagined the giant Soviet spaceship slowing down enough to enter orbit around Jupiter by skimming through the atmosphere of the planet using a giant heat shield that inflated like a balloon. Now, 30 years later, NASA has turned that idea into reality - though no encounters with giant monoliths built by godlike aliens were involved.

The IRVE-3 doesn’t look like much when being prepared for launch. If anything, it looks like a rolled up tent. But in fact it’s a cone of high-tech rings that are covered in a thermal blanket made up of layer after layer of heat-resistant materials. The 680-pound (308 kg) inflatable “aeroshell,” as its called, is packed uninflated into a 22-inch (56 cm) nosecone and mounted on a sounding rocket. When the shield is deployed in flight, it inflates to ten feet (3 m) in diameter with the balloon rings holding it in a mushroom shape. On board are four cameras used to confirm deployment and instruments to monitor temperature and pressure data.

Monday’s test involved launching the shield using a three-stage Black Brant rocket. It was sent into a suborbital path over the Atlantic Ocean where it reached a maximum altitude of 280 miles (450 km). Six minutes into the flight, the shield vehicle separated from the rocket and the shield was successfully deployed, as confirmed by the onboard instruments, to provide protection from speeds and stresses equivalent to a re-entry from a planetary mission or visit to the International Space Station.

James Reuther, deputy director of NASA's Space Technology Program, was pleased with the outcome. "It's great to see the initial results indicate we had a successful test of the hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator. This demonstration flight goes a long way toward showing the value of these technologies to serve as atmospheric entry heat shields for future space."

We like to think that somewhere Sir Arthur is smiling, too.

The launch of the Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) can be seen in the brief video below.

Source: NASA

12 comments
Derek Howe
cool. If this tech is reliable enough, and cheap enough, they seems like a very good alternative to the current method. Space X's dragon capsule could use one of these, and if it works like they say ... Elon won't even have to wash it or give it a new paint job before they re-launch it. :)
L1ma
A number of NASA projects come to mind: http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19880002318_1988002318.pdf http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19650076611_1965076611.pdf But if I remember right this is a rigid heat shield project covering the entire spacecraft for controlled aerobraking to enter Mars and Earths orbits, not re-entry.
Slowburn
Make a bigger balloon fill it with a lighter than air gas and bring the payload down as a blimp.
Gadgeteer
That movie may have been the way the concept was introduced to most of the public, but Clarke was not the originator of aerobraking or ballutes.
Slowburn
re; Gadgeteer since you know so much please inform us of who it was.
JMOdom
I wonder if it could be used as an aeroshield for landing on the planet Mars?
Stephen Colbourne
Something special is needed for landing a large mass on Mars efficiently. Ideally we want to reduce our speed through aerobraking to achieve orbit and then further decelerate to land. Rocket thrusters could be used but would add much mass to the original launch mass. How about inflatable wings to achieve both goals. The size can be increased according to the speed of the craft, with rockets only used for the final few feet of the descent.
L1ma
@ Slowburn North American Space Agency, Mars 96 mission included inflatable Aerobrakes See my post, Trust in NASA Please do not Troll the nice people.
Slowburn
re; L1ma Actually that was JMOdom's question you answered. NASA stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Mars 96 was Russian, http://www.aerospaceguide.net/mars96.html, and given the description, http://www.msss.com/mars/mars9x/penetrators.html, it was an inflatable air brake (think parachute) not a heat shield.
L1ma
Re Slowburn; Mars 96 was a 3 collaborative effort (http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/press_kits/m96pkt.pdf). The technology of airbrakes was copied by Lavochkin for the Russian lander (http://www.weblab.dlr.de/rbrt/GPSNavPast/IRDT/arcachon_paper.pdf )- (MOOSE, Paracone) from Douglas Aircraft and General Electric, rejected by NASA. Gageteer mentioned 'ballutes' which is the correct term, he is allowed to be right do not troll the nice people. This is what he was suggesting. On June 10th 1968 NASA's Inflatable Micrometeoroid Paraglider was the first inflatable reentry vehicle with a sprayed on heat shield to re-enter the Earths atmosphere (http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19680012821_1968012821.pdf). I was expecting you to find the actual real event and @ the comment like a decent person, which is why you get the Troll moniker. I also leave in obvious mistakes.
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