Good news for wannabe astronauts everywhere: NASA has developed a new heat shield concept that, instead of using the usual thermal tiles, is inflatable. They tested it successfully in a launch from Wallops Island, in Virginia.
The new system has demonstrated that it is posible to use an inflatable shield to slow down and protect a spacecraft from atmosphere re-entry. The test unit above was 10 feet in diameter, and was made of several layers of silicone-coated fabric. It was tightly packed for launch and inflated in less than 90 seconds before the re-entry, coming from an altitude of 131 miles.
Once it's fully developed, this shield will make ships a lot lighter, allowing for more payload and greater volumes. [NASA]