NASA Seeks Big Ideas from Students for Inflatable Heat Shield Technology

Artist's rendering of a hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator technology concept. (Credit: NASA)
Artist’s rendering of a hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator technology concept. (Credit: NASA)

WASHINGTON (NASA PR) — NASA is giving university and college students an opportunity to be part of the agency’s journey to Mars with the Breakthrough, Innovative, and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge.


Paragon SDC to Develop Inflatable Space Habitat with NASA SBIR Award

paragonsdcNASA has selected Paragon Space Development Corporation of Tucson for two Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I awards to develop technologies for inflatable space habitats and the regeneration of oxygen for crews on their way to the moon and Mars.

“Paragon Space Development Corp (Paragon) and Thin Red Line Aerospace proposes to explore the utilization of inflatable structures by designing a habitation module as an integrated, all-fabric inflatable structural architecture, rather than modifying rigid space structural designs with an inflatable envelope,” according to the proposal summary. “Paragon and TRLA have developed several concepts with the potential to eliminate the need for hard-material support structure within an inflated habitat.”


NASA Selects Finalists for Inflatable Loft Competition


NASA and the National Space Grant Foundation have selected university teams from Maryland, Oklahoma and Wisconsin as finalists in a competition to design, manufacture, assemble and test an inflatable loft.

NASA is challenging college students to design and rapidly develop prototype concepts for inflatable habitat lofts for the next generation of space explorers. The loft will be integrated onto an existing NASA operational hard-shell prototype habitat. The winning concepts may be applied to space exploration habitats of the future.


Inflatable Heat Shield Launch Successful

Black Brant 9 rocket carrying the Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment launches from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith


A successful NASA flight test has shown that a spacecraft returning to Earth can use an inflatable heat shield to slow and protect itself as it enters the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. This was the first time anyone has successfully flown an inflatable reentry capsule, according to engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

The Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment, or IRVE, was vacuum-packed into a 15-inch diameter payload “shroud” and launched on a small sounding rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. Nitrogen inflated the 10-foot (3 m) diameter heat shield, made of several layers of silicone-coated industrial fabric, to a mushroom shape in space several minutes after liftoff.


NASA, Air Force Experiment with Inflatable Structures

Discovery News has an interesting report on a lesser known aspect of the Endeavour’s recent mission to the International Space Station: an experiment with inflatable structures that could make space construction easier.

As part of an Air Force-funded experiment called RIGEX, shuttle astronauts “inflated three flexible tubes housed inside a chamber in the shuttle cargo bay with pressurized nitrogen gas, then heated them. The tubes then cooled, forming rigid structures…[which] were blasted with vibrations to test their structural integrity.”

Officials are hoping the experiment will lead to easier ways of building large structures in space. Bigelow Aerospace is developing a space station using a similar technology called TransHab that was originally developed by NASA in the 1990’s.