Nasa has successfully conducted a flight test to demonstrate an inflatable heat shield on a spacecraft that can be used to protect the vehicle while it re-enters earth’s atmosphere at hypersonic speeds.

The inflatable re-entry vehicle experiment (IRVE) has been vacuum-packed into a 15in diameter payload shroud and launched on a small sounding rocket from a Nasa flight facility.

The 10ft-diameter heat shield, made of several layers of silicone-coated industrial fabric mounted on the Black Brant 9 rocket inflated with nitrogen to a mushroom shape in space minutes after lift-off.

Nasa’s Langley Research Centre IRVE hypersonics project principal investigator and chief scientist Neil Cheatwood said this is the first time anyone has successfully flown an inflatable re-entry vehicle.

The research focused on the period when the aeroshell re-entered earth’s atmosphere and experienced peak heating and pressure measurements for a period of about 30 seconds.

The real time data was captured by an on-board telemetry system and relayed to the ground.

Nasa plans to build more advanced aeroshells capable of handling higher heat rates now that the small scale demonstrator has proven the IRVE concept.

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