NASA turns to old tech for new heat shield

April 7, 2009 6:36:06 PM PDT
After three years of testing at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, the space agency has selected a heat shield material called the Avcoat Ablator System to provide heat shield protection for returning space explorers. Avcoat was originally designed by NASA Ames engineers 25 years ago for the Apollo space program.

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Avcoat and a second material, called PICA (Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator), were subjected to temperatures up to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The materials are designed to erode and transport extreme heat away from the returning spacecraft during re-entry to the earth's atmosphere.

Avcoat will be used on NASA's next spacecraft, the Orion crew module, starting in 2015. Orion will be used to rendezvous with the International Space Station and in 2020 for missions to moon and perhaps other parts of our solar system.

Don Ellerby, the test's project leader, said NASA engineers had to produce the latest version of the coating using a small amount of the Avcoat material left over from the Apollo program, along with the basic recipe. However, it also required reviewing notes from a quarter century ago and talking to now-retired NASA engineers to make sure they had recreated the Avcoat material faithfully.

Paul Wercinski, the lead systems engineer, said only a handful of 1980s era engineers are still alive, but they managed to find about a handful of them. More research will go into developing Avcoat for the Orion spacecraft.

A total of eight materials were tested before Avcoat and PICA emerged as the top contenders.

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