Space: NASA’s IRVE-3 completes inflatable re-entry vehicle experiment

Yesterday morning NASA’s IRVE-3 – the third and heaviest of a series of inflatable re-entry vehicle experiments – successfully launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia at 7:01 am local time. It landed in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of North Carolina, just 20 minutes later.

Like IRVE and IRVE-2 before it, IRVE-3 has an inflatable outer shell, which slows and protects the craft as it enters an atmosphere at hypersonic speeds.

In order to test the possibility of carrying heavier payloads through planetary atmospheres, IRVE-3 carried more than twice the payload of its predecessors and was installed with a heat shield, testing its ability to withstand atmospheric re-entry. The team also tweaked the craft’s centre of gravity to see if this would lead to more precise manoeuvres than in previous tests.

‘Perfect launch’

The vehicle travelled some 450 kilometres over the Atlantic Ocean, outside Earth’s atmosphere. The 308-kilogram inflatable heat shield – or aeroshell – separated from the nose cone of its launch vehicle and was then inflated with nitrogen into a mushroom shape before falling through Earth’s atmosphere.

“The launch went perfectly,” says Stephen Hughes of NASA’s IRVE-3 team.

Planned initially to enable the exploration of higher-altitude terrain on Mars, the IRVE-3 team is also anticipating its use as a link between here and the International Space Station, transferring waste and other cargo.

While the launch of IRVE-3 was not intended to show off a finished product, “it demonstrates that the technology is valid, and can be scaled up for future mission applications”, says Hughes.

Syndicated content: Nicola Guttridge, New Scientist


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