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Turning Up the Heat on Orion’s Heat Shield…x2!

An object mounted on a metal arm is held in a glowing flow of heated gas
A sample of the Orion spacecraft’s heat shield material undergoes testing in the Laser-Enhanced Arc Jet Facility at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley on April 19, 2021. During the test series, the heat shield was evaluated for the first time in an environment combining the two forms of heating, radiant and convective, the spacecraft will experience when entering Earth’s atmosphere after returning from the Moon. In this clip, only convective heating is being applied. The test results helped certify the heat shield for the Artemis missions.
Credits: NASA/Ames Research Center
A man in a blue jumpsuit and black gloves and mask installs an object on a metal arm in front of the opening to a large tunnel on the right in which a toolbox sits.
Engineering technician Pedro Solano of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley installs a sample of the 3DMAT material used in the Orion spacecraft’s heat shield, in the Arc Jet Facilities Complex at Ames on April 19, 2021. During the test, extremely hot and fast-moving gases pour out of the silver-colored cylinder at left, pass over the test material, and flow down the tunnel at right, approximating the heating a spacecraft experiences when entering the atmosphere.
Credits: NASA/Ames Research Center/Dominic Hart

When NASA astronauts return from the Moon during the Artemis missions, their spacecraft will blast through Earth’s atmosphere at more than 25,000 miles per hour. At that screaming-fast speed, the Orion crew capsule will trigger two forms of heating – convective and radiant – that its heat shield must contend with to protect the spacecraft and crew. For the first time, Orion’s heat shield material was simultaneously tested with both kinds of heating at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. The April 2021 series of tests confirmed that Orion’s heat shield system performs as expected when exposed to the combined heating and certified it for the Artemis lunar missions.

When the convective and radiant heating are combined, they affect the heat shield differently than either does alone. Teams at Ames developed a way to simulate both at once in the arc jet facility, where extremely hot and fast-moving gases flow over a test object to approximate the heating a spacecraft experiences when entering the atmosphere. Researchers added a powerful laser heat source, which simulates radiant heating, to the convective heaters already in use. With both types of heating in play, the Ames tests of the spacecraft’s entry were the most realistic yet.

The team first examined the material making up the bulk of Orion’s heat shield, called Avcoat. They then focused on the material used at locations on the heat shield where the Orion crew module and service module connect. The second material, pictured in tests here, is a new material invented at Ames, the 3-Dimensional Multifunctional Ablative Thermal Protection System, or 3DMAT. It combines the ability to withstand the heating of atmospheric entry with extremely high strength, and will fly for the first time as part of the upcoming uncrewed Artemis I flight test.

Author: Abby Tabor, NASA’s Ames Research Center

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