A NASA flight test designed to demonstrate the feasibility of inflatable spacecraft technology is coming down to the wire. The Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) is the third in a series of suborbital flight tests of this new technology. It is scheduled to launch from the Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia's Eastern Shore this summer.

Technicians will vacuum pack the uninflated 10-foot (3.05 meters) diameter cone of high-tech inner tubes into a 22-inch (56 centimeters) diameter sounding rocket. During the flight test an on-board system will inflate the tubes — stretching a thermal blanket that covers them — to create an aeroshell or heat shield. That heat shield will protect a payload that consists of four segments including the inflation system, steering mechanisms, telemetry equipment and camera gear.

An inflatable heat shield could accommodate larger payloads that could deliver more and heavier science instruments and tools for exploration — changing the way we explore other worlds.

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Also: Learn about a technique for configuring an actively cooled thermal shield in a flight system.