Illustration for article titled This Is How You Inspect an Exotic Spacecraft Heat Shield

When NASA’s Orion crew module re-entered Earth’s atmosphere in 2014 tests, it did so covered in 180 small squares of an advanced heat-shielding material called Avcoat. Now, NASA’s research scientists are inspecting them to find out how they worked. Yes, that does appear to be a vacuum cleaner.


The 16.5-foot-diameter heat shield is being inspected at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. But despite the cleaning equipment pictured, the set-up being used by NASA to inspect the material is really rather special. NASA explains:

It was installed in the center’s state-of-the-art, seven-axis milling machine, which uses precision, computer-aided tools able to fluidly maneuver in a variety of ways to manufacture parts and cut large metal or composite materials or structures... The milling machine boasts a fixed, rotating structure that enables researchers to easily inspect the 5,000-pound heat shield and remove samples of the ablated, or slowly incinerated, material from its surface.


Removal of the samples will consume a team’s attention for the whole of May; then, the entire heat shield will be smoothed off using the same equipment. The samples will be sent to NASA’s Ames facility to be further analyzed, while the shield itself will be headed for further water impact testing. [NASA]

Image by NASA/MSFC/Emmett Given

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