While working on NASA’s Convective Heating Improvement for Emergency Fire Shelters (CHIEFS) effort, S. D. Miller & Associates (SDMA) developed methods of embedding materials into fiber matrices to enhance their thermal properties. Silica aerogel was embedded into an alumina fiber matrix to create Flexible Insulation with a Reinforced Aerogel (FIRA). In the current Phase I effort, a High Temperature FIRA (HTFIRA) will be demonstrated by embedding aerogel with a higher temperature capability. Since commercially available aerogel blankets are currently limited to 1200OF, producing HTFIRA with a scalable manufacturing process would be a significant advance in the state-of-the-art. The re-entry trajectory and payload capacity of Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators (HIADs) are limited by the materials in the Thermal Protection System (TPS). For example, the TPS on the LOFTID (Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator) uses carbon felt and silica aerogel that degrade during re-entry when temperatures can exceed 2800OF. Replacing all or part of these layers with HTFIRA will allow higher heating rates without degradation, facilitating heavier payloads and more direct re-entry trajectories. HTFIRA will also be more flexible, lighter and more compact than the existing TPS materials, further increasing the payload capacity of HIAD. In Phase I, SDMA will collaborate with NASA Glenn Research Center to make aerogel. SDMA will then embed that aerogel in an alumina fiber matrix to demonstrate HTFIRA. Thermal properties will be determined. In a parallel effort in preparation for Phase II and III, SDMA will investigate the scalability of the aerogel manufacturing process and the compatibility of HTFIRA with the fabrication methods developed for the TPS of LOFTID. HTFIRA promises a significant improvement in TPS for multiple Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) strategies including HIAD and controlled flight through planetary atmospheres.
NASA will test LOFTID in 2022. Future inflatable decelerators will be used for getting humans to the surface of Mars, to recover booster engines after launch, to haul equipment back from the International Space Station, to return materials like fiber optic cables manufactured in space, and as emergency evacuation vehicles for crews working in orbit. HTFIRA will reduce the weight and bulk of the TPS on these vehicles, increasing the capacity for fuel and payload, and allow better optimization of the re-entry trajectory.
HTFIRA will let commercial space companies deliver payloads to Mars for less money. Whether you use rockets or inflatable decelerators to land on Mars, the thin atmosphere and larger payloads mean higher heating rates. HTFIRA will reduce costs by enabling larger payloads. Other applications will include more efficient car engines, safer electric batteries and reduced damage from fires.