NASA tests IRVE-3 inflatable heat shield in hypersonic flight


July 23, 2012

The Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) is an inflatable heat shield effective at hypersonic velocities

The Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) is an inflatable heat shield effective at hypersonic velocities

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Legendary science fiction author Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008) scored another hit in the prediction department on Monday, July 23, 2012 when NASA tested an inflatable heat shield that he foresaw back in the 1980s. The test of the Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) was launched by rocket into a suborbital trajectory from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA. The unmanned vehicle reached velocities of up to 7,600 mph (12,231 kph), yet was protected from atmospheric heating by the mushroom-shaped shield.

In 1984, MGM Studios released the film 2010: The Year We Make Contact. Based on Sir Arthur’s 1982 novel 2010: Odyssey Two and was a sequel to the film and book 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The new story concerned a joint American/Soviet mission to Jupiter to salvage the spaceship left abandoned in the previous installment. In one dramatic scene in 2010, Sir Arthur imagined the giant Soviet spaceship slowing down enough to enter orbit around Jupiter by skimming through the atmosphere of the planet using a giant heat shield that inflated like a balloon. Now, 30 years later, NASA has turned that idea into reality - though no encounters with giant monoliths built by godlike aliens were involved.

The IRVE-3 doesn’t look like much when being prepared for launch. If anything, it looks like a rolled up tent. But in fact it’s a cone of high-tech rings that are covered in a thermal blanket made up of layer after layer of heat-resistant materials. The 680-pound (308 kg) inflatable “aeroshell,” as its called, is packed uninflated into a 22-inch (56 cm) nosecone and mounted on a sounding rocket. When the shield is deployed in flight, it inflates to ten feet (3 m) in diameter with the balloon rings holding it in a mushroom shape. On board are four cameras used to confirm deployment and instruments to monitor temperature and pressure data.

Monday’s test involved launching the shield using a three-stage Black Brant rocket. It was sent into a suborbital path over the Atlantic Ocean where it reached a maximum altitude of 280 miles (450 km). Six minutes into the flight, the shield vehicle separated from the rocket and the shield was successfully deployed, as confirmed by the onboard instruments, to provide protection from speeds and stresses equivalent to a re-entry from a planetary mission or visit to the International Space Station.

James Reuther, deputy director of NASA's Space Technology Program, was pleased with the outcome. "It's great to see the initial results indicate we had a successful test of the hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator. This demonstration flight goes a long way toward showing the value of these technologies to serve as atmospheric entry heat shields for future space."

We like to think that somewhere Sir Arthur is smiling, too.

The launch of the Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) can be seen in the brief video below.

Source: NASA

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past. All articles by David Szondy

cool. If this tech is reliable enough, and cheap enough, they seems like a very good alternative to the current method. Space X's dragon capsule could use one of these, and if it works like they say ... Elon won't even have to wash it or give it a new paint job before they re-launch it. :)

Derek Howe

A number of NASA projects come to mind:

But if I remember right this is a rigid heat shield project covering the entire spacecraft for controlled aerobraking to enter Mars and Earths orbits, not re-entry.


Make a bigger balloon fill it with a lighter than air gas and bring the payload down as a blimp.


That movie may have been the way the concept was introduced to most of the public, but Clarke was not the originator of aerobraking or ballutes.


re; Gadgeteer

since you know so much please inform us of who it was.


I wonder if it could be used as an aeroshield for landing on the planet Mars?


Something special is needed for landing a large mass on Mars efficiently. Ideally we want to reduce our speed through aerobraking to achieve orbit and then further decelerate to land. Rocket thrusters could be used but would add much mass to the original launch mass. How about inflatable wings to achieve both goals. The size can be increased according to the speed of the craft, with rockets only used for the final few feet of the descent.

Stephen Colbourne

@ Slowburn

North American Space Agency, Mars 96 mission included inflatable Aerobrakes

See my post, Trust in NASA

Please do not Troll the nice people.


re; L1ma

Actually that was JMOdom's question you answered.

NASA stands for National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Mars 96 was Russian,, and given the description,, it was an inflatable air brake (think parachute) not a heat shield.


Re Slowburn;

Mars 96 was a 3 collaborative effort ( The technology of airbrakes was copied by Lavochkin for the Russian lander ( )- (MOOSE, Paracone) from Douglas Aircraft and General Electric, rejected by NASA.

Gageteer mentioned 'ballutes' which is the correct term, he is allowed to be right do not troll the nice people. This is what he was suggesting.

On June 10th 1968 NASA's Inflatable Micrometeoroid Paraglider was the first inflatable reentry vehicle with a sprayed on heat shield to re-enter the Earths atmosphere (

I was expecting you to find the actual real event and @ the comment like a decent person, which is why you get the Troll moniker. I also leave in obvious mistakes.


re; L1ma

I said nothing about about your comment about my trolling because while I intended to merely ask Gageteer for the information or links because I have terrible with that type of search but on rereading what I had wrote I realized that I had channeled an evil POS that used to claim to teach 7th grade history.

The first use of a 'ballute' as a heat shield I could find was in 2010 previous to that I could only find it as a stable drag device for slowing down from supersonic or transonic velocities.

My overly antiquated computer does not support pdf files so I can not use the links you provided would you please provide others.


@ Slowburn;

Gageteer managed in nine words to encompass the entire development of inflatable devices, as a good student looking up the references would had left you with the correct conclusion. Unlike me, he did not leave in troll bait or hints in his true statement.

As a Troll you have been Re X; every possible person - when they did not reply to you it looked to you as if they could not justify the post. Graduates know better they do not have to reply to you because those readers qualified in science know which statements are true. It is not the state of your keyboard, pc or knowledege or lack thereof you just ambush posters on the boards for the kicks.

Trust me to be with you to keep you straight; as you have the right of reply - so do I.

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