NASA Test Puts Inflatable Tech in Space

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The world is all abuzz about a lot of things right now, but especially with the National Aeronautics and Space Adminstration’s [NASA] landing of a rover on Mars. The rover – named Curiosity – recently landed on the Red Planet and has begun transmitting interesting photos and videos from the surface. The mission is much like another Mars rover which landed some years ago, except with one difference. Unlike other rover landings, Curiosity used a supersonic parachute, instead of a series of inflatable balloons or heat shields.

However, NASA is looking at inflatables for future use in protecting landing sequences on distant planets if a recent test is any indication. According to the Los Angeles Times, NASA launched a heat-shield prototype on Monday. This test included inflatable technology as a major component:Inflatable Heat Shield

“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 article says the heat shield is actually comprised of inflatable rings formed into a cone shape. These rings are covered in high-tech thermal blankets which protect the inflatables and space capsule from extremely high temperatures caused during re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere. In the case of the IRVE-3, it withstood 1000 degrees Fahrenheit.  This wasn’t the first time NASA has used inflatables in its work, running two previous IRVE launches:

“The first IRVE experiment launched in 2007, but failed due to a booster failure. In 2009, the space agency successfully flew the IRVE-2 inflatable heat shield. The IRVE-3 payload, however, is heavier than the IRVE-2 design, and was subjected to more extreme re-entry heating than its predecessor.”

Based on the success of this mission, we’ll probably being seeing more and more inflatable tech being used for space exploration!