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NASA's Inflatable Heat Shield Takes Vacuum Packing to a New Level

Inflatable Heat Shield Packed
A 9-foot (3 meters) test article for an inflatable heat shield gets packed tightly by engineer Sean Hancock. (Image credit: NASA/David C. Bowman)

An inflatable-heat-shield prototype designed to protect spacecraft on other worlds has passed its first key step: making sure it fits into a rocket.

In a recent test, the 9-foot-diameter (3 meters) test shield was carefully compressed to see how it would respond to the folding and packing. By studying the doughnut-shaped heat shield tech, engineers hope to better understand how the material will behave when it automatically deploys during a future deep-space mission.

"During testing, we used a vacuum pump to compress the test article into a small space," lead project engineer Keith Johnson said in a statement from NASA. "We packed and unpacked it and did thorough inspections to check for leaks and damage to the Zylon and Teflon materials. We repeated this three times." [Watch: Inflatable Heat Shields Could Drop-Ship Bigger Robots]

The eventual goal for the inflatable technology, called the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD), is to use atmospheric drag to slow down a spacecraft. This will lessen the heat the spacecraft experiences while entering a planet's atmosphere, and will help the spacecraft land more gently, according to a NASA description.

An artist's illustration of a Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD) heat shield deploying during a descent to Mars. (Image credit: NASA/Langley Research Center)

This technology could help people (in a heavy spacecraft) land using the thin atmosphere of Mars, or even return cargo from the International Space Station, NASA HIAD project officials said in the statement. One key barrier to a human Mars mission is how to land the heavy cargo required to support a crew of astronauts for weeks or months.

If this test and others are successful, NASA will build a larger HIAD that can pack into a rocket and deploy safely to bring a spacecraft safely to the ground.

Engineers at the NASA Langley Research Center prepare an inflatable-heat-shield test for packaging. (Image credit: NASA/David C. Bowman)

"All these tests build on each other to help demonstrate the performance of the system," Johnson said in the statement. "In the end, we'll have a complete system that will be tested, to show that it can meet the requirements for a spaceflight mission, whether it's going to be returning a vehicle to Earth or future Mars missions."

Follow Elizabeth Howell @howellspace, or Space.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+. Original article on Space.com.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.