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Introduction to Ballutes

          In the 1999 to 2002 timeframe JPL conducted an initial research and development program for a class of inflatable drag devices called ballutes. The primary application was for planetary aerocapture, a flight maneuver in which a spacecraft uses atmospheric drag to decelerate into orbit at another planet. Also of interest was the related maneuver of aeroentry in which the deceleration is sufficient to bring the spacecraft through the atmosphere to the planetary surface.

          The technology to do aerocapture maneuvers was not yet available at that time. However, many future NASA missions in its strategic plan could not be accomplished with chemical propulsion technology for orbit insertion and thus could benefit from aerocapture capability. In contrast, aeroentry maneuvers have been performed for many years using ablative aeroshell technology (e.g. Apollo, Mars Pathfinder, Pioneer-Venus, Galileo probe, etc.). Derivatives of ablative aeroshells are a competing technology for ballutes in the aerocapture regime.

          Aerocapture ballutes were in an early stage of technological development during the 1999 to 2002 timeframe. The key challenge was to design a lightweight ballute that could survive the severe heating environment during hypersonic flight through the atmosphere. This required an integrated engineering design across several disciplines: balloon materials, structural analysis, aerothermodynamic simulation, system engineering, space inflatables, wind tunnel testing, and flight testing. JPL partnered with other organizations to bring the necessary engineering expertise and capabilities into the program. Partners included NASA Langley Research Center, California Institute of Technology (shock tunnel), and Fabric Development Inc.

          This legacy ballute program had close ties to the JPL Planetary Aerobot Program, especially in the area of balloon materials for high temperature Venus applications.

          More detailed background information on aerocapture ballutes can be found via the Ballute References button at the top of the page and in the left NavBar. Overviews of aerocapture ballute technology at the time can be found in the legacy papers by Hall ([15] and [16]).

 

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