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NASA test of hypersonic inflatable heat shield a success (+video)

The mushroom-like Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment 3 performed as expected as it plunged through the Earth's atmosphere and splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean. 

By Space.com StaffSpace.com / July 23, 2012

The IRVE-3 undergoes complete inflation system test under vacuum conditions in the Transonic Dynamics Tunnel at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.

Langley/Kathy Barnstorff/NASA

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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.

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Inflatable Re-Entry Vehicle Experiment 3 (IRVE3). Animation to show the launch and deployment of the inflatable device and then the re-entry.

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.

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