NASA's Hypersonic Inflatable Heat Shield

By Kris Walker

Successful Testing: The IRVE-3 made a successful re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. Image Credit: NASA

A breakthrough development by NASA’s Space Technology Program has made a successful trip through the earth’s atmosphere testing a revolutionary heat shield.

The Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) is an inflatable heat shield that travelled at hypersonic speeds of up to 7,600 mph.

Ready to Launch: The HIAD team have worked for the past three years on the IRVE-3. Image Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

The heat shield is made up of an inflatable outer shell to help slow down, and offer protection upon re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere at hypersonic speeds.

"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. "This demonstration flight goes a long way toward showing the value of these technologies to serve as atmospheric entry heat shields for future space."

A Bulletproof Fire Suit: Materials used in IRVE-3 can withstand temperatures of 1260 degress celsius. Image Credit: NASA Langley/Kathy Barnstorff

The IRVE-3 consists of a 'cone', made up of a series of un-inflated high tech rings of braided Kevlar lined with silicon – the same material used on bulletproof vests. A thermal blanket of layers of heat resistant materials covers these rings.

Using materials such as Nextel, Pyrogel and Kapton the IRVE-3 uses a revolutionary thermal protection system that is not too dissimilar to that of a fireman’s suit. The only difference being that this can take temperatures of up to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit.

Thermal Protection System: Made of layers of Nextel, Pyrogel and Kapton. NASA

The IRVE-3 is part of NASA’s Hypersonic, Inflatable, Aerodynamic, Decelerator program, or HIAD, and the team of scientists working on this project are looking forward to using the inflatable heat shield to explore planets like Mars, Venus and Titan; as well as possess the capabilities of transporting humans.

"A team of NASA engineers and technicians spent the last three years preparing for the IRVE-3 flight," said Lesa Roe, director of NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. "We are pushing the boundaries with this flight. We look forward to future test launches of even bigger inflatable aeroshells."

The HIAD project is part of the Game Changing Development Program from NASA’s Space Technology Program, and with the successful testing of the IRVE-3 inflatable heat shield we could see the future of space travel take another giant leap.

Protective Material: Could this heat shield one day be used for human space travel? Image Credit: NASA

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NASA Successfully Tests Hypersonic Inflatable Heat Shield

Kris Walker

Written by

Kris Walker

Kris has a BA(hons) in Media & Performance from the University of Salford. Aside from overseeing the editorial and video teams, Kris can be found in far flung corners of the world capturing the story behind the science on behalf of our clients. Outside of work, Kris is finally seeing a return on 25 years of hurt supporting Manchester City.


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