A rocket was launched last week from Virginia in a test of a new mechanism for landing on other planets.
The launch from Wallops Island had been scheduled for July 22, but was postponed until the next day. At 7:01 a.m. on July 23, NASA said a sounding rocket was launched from the flight facility on the coastal island as part of an inflatable-reentry-vehicle experiment.
The device being tested is called a hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator. It is intended to provide a new way of slowing spacecraft payloads on their return to Earth or descent onto other planets.
NASA said the device, which was carried about 280 miles above the Atlantic Ocean, survived a trip back to Earth through the atmosphere while reaching speeds of up to 7,600 mph.
The idea was to show that an inflatable outer shell can be used by a space capsule to slow and protect itself from the heat built up by the plunge through atmospheric gases to the surface of Earth or another planet.
A variety of new technologies have been used in developing the device, and a NASA administrator said in a statement that the demonstration launch from Wallops “goes a long way toward showing” their value in providing heat shielding for descents from space.
After the device separated from the nose cone of the launch vehicle, nitrogen was pumped into it to inflate it to about 10 feet in diameter, much more than the diameter of the nose cone.
In a key part of the test, NASA said the inflatable shield retained its mushroom shape despite the heat and forces of reentry.
NASA engineers say the inflatable shield could prove lighter than other such devices, which would help save weight for rocket payloads. By expanding to a larger size, it could also increase the efficiency of deceleration.