NASA tests fold­able um­brella-like heat shield

Tehran Times - - SCIENCE -

The tech­nol­ogy to reach an­other planet or moon is only worth so much if you can’t land on it. Ev­ery land­ing has its own chal­lenges, but ce­les­tial bod­ies with an at­mos­phere are par­tic­u­larly vex­ing. For decades, the heat shields that pro­tect space­craft dur­ing at­mo­spheric en­try have been rigid and heavy, but NASA just tested a flex­i­ble “um­brella-like” heat shield that could make deep space mis­sions more prac­ti­cal.

The flex­i­ble heat shield is known as the Adapt­able De­ploy­able En­try and Place­ment Tech­nol­ogy (ADEPT), and it was de­vel­oped at NASA’s Ames Re­search Cen­ter in Cal­i­for­nia. NASA‘s goal is to make heat shields larger while also re­duc­ing weight — it’s an area of space­craft de­sign long over­due for a change.

Space­craft are mov­ing at fan­tas­tic speeds when they de­scend to the sur­face, and that com­presses at­mo­spheric gas. The com­pres­sion causes pres­sure shock, lead­ing to in­tense heat­ing in front of the space­craft as high as 5,400 de­grees Fahren­heit (3,000 Cel­sius).

Even a thin at­mos­phere like the one on Mars can cause sig­nif­i­cant heat buildup. Cur­rent space­craft use aeroshells to keep the pay­load cool as it en­ters an at­mos­phere. Aeroshells are usu­ally made of thick phe­no­lic plas­tic and ab­lates (peels away) un­der in­tense heat to pro­tect the space­craft. The plas­tic isn’t flex­i­ble and weighs quite a lot. Thus, heat shields can’t be larger than the di­am­e­ter of the rocket that launched them.

ADEPT could change all that. It’s com­posed of lay­ers of 3D wo­ven car­bon fab­ric stretched over ar­tic­u­lat­ing ribs and struts. Rather than ab­lat­ing, ADEPT re-ra­di­ates ab­sorbed heat with very high ef­fi­ciency to keep the pay­load cool.

The test flight on Septem­ber 12th in­volved a quick 15-minute sub-orbital flight. The rocket lifted the pro­to­type to an alti­tude of 60 miles (tech­ni­cally in space) and re­leased it.

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