Super Guppy arrives in California with future Artemis heat shield

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NASA crews transported the heat shield skin for a future mission of NASA’s Orion spacecraft – via the agency’s oversized Super Guppy cargo transport plane – to Moffett Federal Airfield, California. The transfer took place on November 9, 2021.

The heat shield skin for the Artemis IV mission, the third crewed mission to the Moon, is now at Moffett Federal Airfield near NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, for the next phase of production.

The skin of the Artemis IV Orion heat shield is unloaded from the Aero Spacelines Super Guppy to the K Loader at Moffett Federal Airfield in California. (NASA photo by Don Richey)

Orion’s heat shield protects the spacecraft and the astronauts inside the capsule from the intense heat generated upon re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. When the spacecraft returns at about 25,000 miles per hour, the heat shield will experience extreme temperatures of around 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, or about half the heat of the sun. The heat shield has an underlying titanium skeleton covered with a carbon fiber skin. Over 180 unique blocks are glued to the skin of the heat shield and will slowly burn as the spacecraft passes through Earth’s atmosphere upon reentry.

The newly delivered heat shield skin will undergo heat and pressure treatment at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Sunnyvale, California. The skin of the heat shield is made up of many layers of carbon fabric which are activated by a resin. Once hardened, the resin will first soften and then harden to consolidate the skin. Heat and pressure treatment will give the skin the necessary mechanical strength properties it needs for Orion’s thermal protection system.

Unlike other planes, the Super Guppy plane has a specially designed hinged nose that opens at a 110 degree angle so that cargo can be loaded and unloaded from its belly. The unique shape of the aircraft also allows it to carry bulky or heavy equipment that would not otherwise be suitable for a traditional aircraft. With a diameter of 16.5 feet, the Orion heat shield and its corresponding skin is the largest heat shield base ever developed for manned space flight missions.

Ames oversees the development, analysis and arc-jet testing of entry systems and spacecraft for NASA’s Artemis lunar missions. Thanks to Artemis, NASA will land the first woman and the first person of color on the lunar surface, conduct extensive operations on and around the moon, and prepare for the first human mission to Mars.


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