NASA testing re-entry vehicle design
8 March 2000http://defence-data.com/storypic/ceramicmock.jpg [not image]
An experiment that could lead to a breakthrough in the design of space vehicles successfully completed its final design review in February and is planned for flight demonstration in June.
The flight experiment will test ultra-high temperature ceramic material that could radically improve thermal protection of spacecraft through the extreme heat of re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.
Ultra-high temperature ceramic material could make it possible for space vehicles to have sharp leading edges, instead of the blunt body design common to today's spacecraft. Engineers routinely design spacecraft with blunt leading edges that create a region of compressed air in front of the vehicle as it travels faster than the speed of sound. This region absorbs much of the heat associated with a spacecraft's re-entry into Earth's atmosphere and keeps the vehicle's edges from overheating.
Mock-up of ceramic leading edge
Blunt body vehicles, however, are inefficient and have high drag, or friction, as they fly, resulting in large, expensive propulsion systems. The ceramic material NASA's Ames Research Centre will test in flight could lower the cost of boosting objects to space substantially. A modified Mk12A re-entry vehicle, basically an aerodynamic nose cone, with four sharp leading edges will be lofted into space aboard a US Air Force Minuteman III launch vehicle and will make a high-speed re-entry into the atmosphere to test the ceramic material.
Following re-entry, the vehicle will deploy a drag chute and be recovered from the waters of the Pacific Ocean.
The Slender Hypervelocity Aerothermodynamic Research Probe, (SHARP B2) is one of the Future-X flight experiments selected by NASA to help mould the future of space transportation. The SHARP B2 experiment is led by NASA's Ames Research Centre at Moffett Field in California.