NASA to Test Inflatable Spacecraft

The American space agency NASA announced a few days ago that a new flight test would be taking place today, featuring the first inflatable reentry spacecraft. Its mission will be to deploy when a carrier enters the Earth or the Martian atmosphere, and to act as a heat shield and aerodynamic brake. The inflatable concept is not new, but these tests represent the first time ever when an actual prototype of such an advanced system is challenged practically. The test will take place at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility, in Wallops Island, Virginia.
The new protective outer layer is especially designed to protect reentering vehicles, but it had to do so while being very lightweight and resistant to speed and heat. Therefore, experts opted for a silicon-coated Kevlar aeroshell structure, which is both lightweight, and capable of being stored within a 16-inch (40.6-cm) -diameter cylinder. When nitrogen fills it, and it expands, the structure reaches a circular diameter of about ten feet (three meters), sufficient for a wide array of applications. It can naturally be made to inflate to even larger proportions.

“We'd like to be able to land more mass on Mars. To land more mass you have to have more drag. We need to maximize the drag area of the entry system. We want to make it as big as we can, but the limitation has been the launch vehicle diameter,” NASA Fundamental Aeronautics Program Hypersonics Project chief scientist Neil Cheatwood explains. He is also the principal investigator for the new project, dubbed the Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE).

“The whole flight will be over in less than 20 minutes. We separate from the rocket 90 seconds after launch and we begin inflation about three-and-a-half-minutes after that. Our critical data period after it inflates and re-enters through the atmosphere is only about 30 seconds long,” IRVE Project Manager Mary Beth Wusk adds. The new prototype will be lifted to an altitude of about 130 miles (209 kilometers) by a 50-foot Black Brant 9 rocket system.

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