Tue, May 23, 2006
Tests Underway At Ames Research Center
As NASA moves toward
dismantling the space shuttle program by 2010 and gears up for the
next phase of space exploration -- the moon, Mars and beyond --
scientists at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA are
hard at work trying to find the next generation heat shield.
That shield will need to protect the Crew Exploration vehicle as
it returns up to six astronauts from a trip to the Moon. It's an
especially difficult challenge, given that the CEV will enter
Earth's atmosphere at about 25,000 miles an hour -- one-third
faster than a vehicle re-entering from low-Earth orbit.
That difference in speed can make the temperatures experienced
during reentry increase by more than tenfold, according to James
Reuther, product manager of heat-shield testing for the CEV.
"It's a real challenge," Reuther told CNet News.
Scientists are testing new heat shield designs at the arc-jet
lab at Ames, which can create conditions that are up to three times
as hot as the surface of the sun. A nozzle accelerates and directs
superheated air onto small, hockey-puck-sized sample materials that
eventually may be used on the CEV's heat shield.
Five different materials being tested for possible use on the
CEV... including some made of quartz and resin, as well as a
material called "Pica," developed at Ames.
The materials used won't be the only difference between the
CEV's heat shield and the ceramic-tile shield used on
the space shuttle. Scientists at Ames are also working on a
shield design that uses a series of layers -- called "blades" --
that would melt away as the ship reenters the atmosphere.
This kind of ablative covering was also used on the Apollo
capsules -- as well as the current Russian Soyuz -- but the new
materials would give the CEV's shield greater resistance to
NASA wants the CEV ready for flight as early as 2012.
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