NASA is building an inflatable heat shield in space

NASA is building an inflatable heat shield in space

The Inflatable Hypersonic Aerodynamic Decelerator technology is a series of inflatable rings stacked on top of each other.
Gif: NASA/Gizmodo

In preparation for future missions to Mars, NASA is developing a new method to protect spacecraft from the fiery inferno of atmospheric entry, and it’s doing so using a series of what appear to be glorified floats.

We have a lot to worry about as we travel through space. From human hair grounding launch that hazardous space junk, there’s a lot to consider, including the difficult task of entering the planet’s atmosphere. NASA’s Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD) project seeks to reinvent how spacecraft are shielded from the heat generated during atmospheric entry, where the resulting friction can produce temperatures as high as 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

According to NASA Media ReleaseHIAD has been in development for years, but its next application will be in Low Inflatable Deceleration Earth Orbit Flight Test, or LOFTID. The LOFTID looks like a series of inner tubes of decreasing diameter stacked on top of each other to form a cone, which can be packed into a small package and inflated as needed. The outer layer of HIAD is made of ceramic fibers, i.e woven together to create a fabric.

LOFTID FTPS Power Testing

LOFTID is expected to launch in November aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, beside NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System-2, for a true test of its ability to survive atmospheric re-entry. After the NOAA payload separates from the Atlas V upper stage, LOFTID will inflate and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere in an attempt to see how successful the design is in slowing down and protecting sensitive payloads, such as manned spacecraft and robotic equipment, from the heat of re-entry.

During suborbital tests, the system came to “approximately 5,600 miles per hour or 2.5 kilometers per second, which is already difficult,” said Steve Hughes in NASA press release. Hughes is the LOFTID aeroshell manager at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. “But with LOFTID, we’ll be going almost 18,000 miles per hour, or 8 kilometers per second. That’s about three times faster, but that means nine times more energy.”

A cutout showing the various elements that make up LOFTID.

A cutout showing the various elements that make up LOFTID.
Graphically: NASA

As NASA points out, The LOFTID system can include various instruments and be scaled to different sizes depending on the scope missions. In the long term, however, NASA specifically identifies its interest in how this technology could help protect future crewed missions to Mars.

More: A memory Enterprise: A test shuttle that never went into space

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