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Self-diagnostic thermal protection systems for future spacecraft

Alaina B Hanlon, University of Massachusetts Amherst


The thermal protection system (TPS) represents the greatest risk factor after propulsion for any transatmospheric mission (Dr. Charles Smith, NASA ARC). Any damage to the TPS leaves the space vehicle vulnerable and could result in the loss of human life as happened in the Columbia accident. Aboard the current Space Shuttle Orbiters no system exists to notify the astronauts or ground control if the thermal protection system has been damaged. Through this research, a proof-of-concept monitoring system was developed. The system has two specific applications for thermal protection systems: (1) Improving models used to predict thermal and mechanical response of TPS materials, and (2) Self-diagnosing damage within regions of the TPS and communicating the damage to the appropriate personnel over a potentially unstable network. Mechanical damage is among the most important things to protect the TPS against. Methods to detect the primary types of mechanical damage suffered by thermal protection systems have been developed. Lightweight, low-power sensors were developed to detect any cracks in small regions of a TPS. Implementation of a network of these sensors within 10's to 1000's of regions will eventually provide high spatial resolution of damage detection; allowing for detection of holes in the TPS. Also important in thermal protection material development is to know the ablation rates and time/temperature response of the materials. A new type of sensor has been developed to monitor temperature at different depths within thermal protection materials. The signals being transmitted through the sensors can be multiplexed to allow for mechanical damage and temperature to be monitored using the same sensor.

Subject Area

Aerospace engineering|Mechanical engineering

Recommended Citation

Hanlon, Alaina B, "Self-diagnostic thermal protection systems for future spacecraft" (2008). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3325273.