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Range and Mission Management Office (RMMO) personnel continues to support NASA’s Langley Research Center (LaRC) and its Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment 3 (IRVE-3) at the Wallops Range sending their latest payload aboard a Black Brant XI sounding rocket on the morning of July 23, 2012. To add to the complexity of this mission two small Viper 3A Darts were also launched to gather upper air metorological data.

As part of LaRC’s Fundamental Aerodynamics Program Hypersonics Project, IRVE-3 demonstrated how a spacecraft returning to a planet can use an inflatable heat shield to slow and protect itself as it re-enters the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. IRVE-3 is to build on both IRVE-II and ongoing ground-based developments with the goal of 5 times to 10 times higher heating than IRVE-II demonstrated.

Data acquisition and tracking instrumentation from WFF supported this launch along with a downrange tracking station at Coquina, N.C. The launch was Wallops’ third attempt at executing a flight test that demonstrated the viability of hypersonic inflatable aeroshell technology in terms of both inflation and re-entry survivability.

"As I listened to the terminal count, I was impressed by the professionalism of the team and truly got excited about the possibilities for impacting NASA's future in space exploration,” John Doe, chief technologist at NASA Headquarters said. “…when the payload deployed, inflated properly and began its descent, I felt a sense of pride to be working for an agency that dares to think of and do amazing things!”

The key focus of the research came about eleven minutes into the flight, at an altitude of about 90 miles, when the aeroshell re-entered Earth’s atmosphere and experienced its peak heating and pressure measurements for a period of about 70 seconds. A critcal goal was for telemetry capture at both the Wallops and Coquina, N.C. tracking stations for the science data period at “90 to 27-kilometer altitude” on the down-leg of the mission; and secondly, a goal to collect data from the end of the critical science period down to an altitude of 17 kilometers.

An on-board telemetry system captured data from instruments during the test and downlinked the information to engineers on the ground in real time. The technology demonstrator payload splashed down and sank in the Atlantic Ocean about 150 miles east of Cape Hatteras, N.C. RRS personnel attempted an ocean recovery aboard a Department of Defense technology demonstration recovery vessell, but the payload was not found until a pinger sensor located it in about 1,000 meters of water making the recovery impossible.

This test was important to NASA’s program because inflatable heat shields hold promise for future planetary missions, according to NASA LaRC researchers. 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 IRVE experiment will continue at the Wallops Range in fiscal year 2013 with IRVE-IV.

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