Sometime during the morning of July 21st, or on any of the four days following if conditions are bad, NASA will launch a Black Brant XI rocket along with IRVE-3 – the Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment. IRVE-3 is an inflatable heat shield that, if successful, can be used to protect payloads from the intense heat generated when an object drops through the Earth’s atmosphere. Once launched, the rocket will ascend to an altitude of 280 miles, where the IRVE-3 will separate from the rocket and fall to Earth. Upon separation, the 680 pound IRVE-3 will inflate using air from on-board air tanks until it is about 10 feet in diameter, looking a little like a bunch of tires stacked together.
The IRVE-3 is a follow-up to the IRVE-2, which works the same way, but is much smaller. Due to its larger size, the IRVE-3 will generate more heat, requiring more performance from the heat shielding. Should the experiment be successful, IRVE-3 could be used to protect samples sent from the International Space Station when entering the Earth’s atmosphere and to create softer landings for future Mars rover missions. The larger size of the IRVE-3 will create more drag, making descents slower. That will both protect the payload and open up rougher terrain as potential landing spots. If you are curious as to what NASA is up to, you can check out their live feed of the event.