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Inflatable heat shield could be used to land humans on Mars, NASA says

After its successful test launch of the Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment 3, NASA says that this technology could be used to land humans on Mars.

By Denise / July 24, 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


NASA successfully tested an inflatable heat shield prototype Monday (July 23), a technology that could one day be used for future space exploration missions, including landing humans on Mars, its builders say.

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The Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment 3, or IRVE-3, was conducted at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. During the test flight, a small capsule was launched atop a suborbital rocket, and an inflatable heat shield was deployed in space before it plummeted back through Earth's atmosphere at hypersonic speeds to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean.

The demonstration flight helps pave the way for new re-entry systems on future spacecraft, said Neil Cheatwood, IRVE-3 principal investigator at 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," Cheatwood said in a press briefing after Monday's successful test flight. "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."  [Photos: NASA's Inflatable Heat Shield for Spaceships]

Since the inflatable heat shield is designed to withstand hypersonic speeds and extreme temperatures, the IRVE-3 technology could give mission managers more options for where to land future spacecraft or rovers on Mar, such as touching down at higher latitudes on the Red Planet.

"We want to go to higher latitudes at that mass, or use this technology for larger payloads, such as humans," Cheatwood explained.

The heat shield technology could also be used to tackle the issue of "garbage" on the International Space Station, Cheatwood said. Robotic spacecraft that are sent to deliver fresh supplies, food and experiments to the orbiting outpost could then be re-packed with unwanted materials to return to Earth.

"When we send up re-supply [spacecraft] to the station, there's no portable on-demand storage up there," Cheatwood said. "When they bring up 'x' number of cubic feet of stuff, we need to get rid of that much as well."

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