Atmospheric re-entry subjects vehicles to extreme conditions. At high Mach numbers, the leading shock wave compresses the air so strongly that it reaches temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun. At these temperatures, oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the air dissociate, bathing a vehicle in a plasma of ionized gas molecules. Often these atoms chemically react with the surface materials of a vehicle causing ablation that removes mass from the vehicle while helping protect the vehicle substructure from re-entry heating. Tests in specialized ground facilities like arc-jet plasma tunnels are necessary to develop thermal protection systems capable of shielding a vehicle during hypersonic flight. (Image credit: D. Ponseggi/NASA)

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