A successful NASA flight test this summer showed that a spacecraft returning to Earth can use an inflatable heat shield to slow and protect itself as it enters the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. This was the first time anyone has successfully flown an inflatable reentry capsule, according to engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA.

NASA engineers check out the Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE) in the lab. (NASA/Sean Smith)
The Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE) was vacuum- packed into a 15"-diameter payload “shroud” and launched on a small sounding rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Nitrogen inflated the 10'-diameter heat shield, made of several layers of silicone-coated Kevlar industrial fabric, to a mushroom-shaped shield in less than 90 seconds.

The idea of inflatable decelerators has been around for 40 years, but there were technical issues, including concerns about whether materials could withstand the heat of re-entry. Since then, materials have advanced, and because of numerous Mars missions — including rovers, landers, and orbiters — there’s more understanding of the Martian atmosphere.

Inflatable heat shields hold promise for future planetary missions. To land more mass on Mars at higher surface elevations, for instance, mission planners need to maximize the drag area of the entry system. The larger the diameter of the aeroshell, the bigger the payload can be.

For more information, visit www.nasa.gov/topics/aeronautics/features/irve.html.

The U.S. Government does not endorse any commercial product, process, or activity identified on this web site.