NASA’s inflatable heat shield could land humans on Mars
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When a a large experimental heat shield inflated in space and faced a brutal re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere last week, the aeroshell survived — and NASA officials hailed it as a “huge success.”
The technology demonstration could be the foundation of landing technology that puts humans on the surface of Mars.
The Low Orbit Flight Test of the Inflatable Deceleration Technology Demonstration, or LOFTID, entered space on Nov. 10 as a secondary payload along with the Joint Polar Satellite System-2, a polar weather satellite.
After the LOFTID separated from the polar satellite and inflated, the airfoil re-entered the atmosphere from low Earth orbit.
Upon re-entry, LOFTID faced temperatures reaching 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,649 degrees Celsius) and reaching speeds of nearly 28,968 kilometers per hour – the ultimate test for the materials used to construct the inflatable structure, which includes a ceramic fabric fabric that called silicon carbide.
The the heat shield and backup data recorder splashed into the Pacific Ocean about two hours after launch, hundreds of miles off the coast of Hawaii, where the boat team was stationed to retrieve the items.
Preliminary data helped the team determine whether the aeroshell was effective in decelerating and surviving a steep dive from low Earth orbit into the ocean. The result: “a pretty resounding yes,” said Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.
A full study of LOFTID’s performance is expected to take about a year.
The mission aims to test inflatable heat shield technology that could also land larger robotic missions on Venus or Saturn’s moon Titan or return sizable payloads to Earth. The actual aeroshells, or heat shields, used depend on the size of the rocket envelope. But an inflatable aeroshell could bypass that dependency — and open up more difficult missions to different planets.
The LOFTID demonstration was about 20 feet (6 meters) in diameter.
When a spacecraft enters a planet’s atmosphere, it is hit by aerodynamic forces, which help slow it down. On Mars, where the atmosphere is less than 1% the density of Earth’s atmosphere, extra help is needed to create the drag needed to slow the spacecraft down and land safely.
That’s why NASA engineers think a large, deployable aeroshell like LOFTID, which inflates and is protected by a flexible heat shield, could brake as it travels through the Martian atmosphere. The Aeroshell is designed to create more drag in the upper atmosphere to help the spacecraft decelerate more quickly, which also prevents some of the super intense heating.
Currently, NASA can drop 1 metric ton (2,205 pounds) on the surface of Mars, like the car-sized Perseverance rover. But something like LOFTID could land between 20 and 40 metric tons (44,092 to 88,184 pounds) on Mars, said Joe Del Corso, LOFTID project manager at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
When the recovery team pulled the aeroshell out of the ocean, they were surprised to find that the outside “looked absolutely intact,” said John DiNonno, LOFTID’s chief engineer at NASA Langley. “You wouldn’t know it had a very intense re-entry,” he said.
In fact, the inflatable is in such good shape, it looks like it could be reused and flown again, DiNonno said, but rigorous testing is needed before that decision is made.
There is still a huge amount of data to process, including the specific temperatures the LOFTID faces at various points in its flight.
Once the full study is complete, scientists could use the findings to work on the next, larger generation of LOFTID. The experiment was designed to fit as a driving demonstration with a polar satellite. Next, LOFTID needs to be scaled up to test its performance on a Mars mission, which could require a three- to four-fold increase in overall size.
The mission, which was launched only a few days before The Artemis I mega moon rocket took off on its way to the moon and back, is a “tremendous success” that shares a common goal with the Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the Moon and eventually land crews on Mars.
“To send people into space on the moon or to send them to Mars, we need stuff — a lot of it, which means we have to put a lot of mass into space,” Del Corso said.
“We now have the ability to both put heavy payloads into space and bring them back down. These two successes are major steps in enabling human access and research. We’re going into space and we want to be able to stay there.”
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