NASA has successfully flown an inflatable heat shield into Earth’s atmosphere, part of a technology demonstration that could one day help land spacecraft safely on the surface of Mars and beyond.
Since the advent of manned spaceflight, scientists and engineers have grappled with the inherent dangers of atmospheric re-entry. Without sufficient protection, the extreme aerodynamic forces and friction-induced heat unleashed by a spacecraft hitting the atmosphere at high speed would inevitably tear it apart in a fiery display.
In order to make an atmospheric descent safe, NASA and its partners would need to find a system to thermally insulate their spacecraft and allow them to survive long enough for aerodynamic drag to slow the spacecraft to a safe speed to deploy parachutes.
NASA Black Hole Gallery
To this end, engineers developed a series of protective coatings – often made from metallic materials or ceramic tiles – which, when attached to the bottom of a spacecraft, were designed to absorb the otherwise devastating temperatures experienced during of the comeback.
This approach has remained largely unchanged to the present day and has proven effective as a thermal defense against the dense particulate soup of Earth’s atmosphere.
However, a significant disadvantage of conventional heat shields is that they are incredibly rigid and cannot be as large as the protective rocket fairing that surrounds them. This makes it an unattractive option for scientists planning a future crewed mission to Mars.
How LOFTID could help land future astronauts on Mars: https://t.co/eDRGA9TbKf pic.twitter.com/1y9Tf34KtJ
—NASA (@NASA) November 10, 2022
The Red Planet’s atmosphere is significantly less dense than Earth’s, and because of this, more surface area is needed to slow a spacecraft in time to make a safe landing. The development of such a heat shield is a crucial step in making humanity a multiplanetary species.
To that end, NASA and its partners worked on an inflatable, cone-shaped heat shield that could be launched in a compact configuration and then extended into space to provide a massive surface with which to attract atmospheric drag. The technology’s first orbital demonstration was imaginatively named the Low Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator, or LOFTID for short.
The LOFTID prototype is composed of a series of connected inflatable tubes which, on the atmosphere side, are covered with a heat-resistant woven ceramic fabric skin.
On Nov. 10 at 4:49 a.m. ET, NASA launched the aeroshell into the freezing space environment atop an Atlas V rocket for its first orbital test — a true test-by-fire. During the ascent, the deflated heat shield was neatly stacked under a state-of-the-art weather satellite en route to high polar orbit.
About an hour and ten minutes into the mission – with the weather satellite safely detached and en route – NASA scientists instructed LOFTID to power up and inflate.
The process, which took around 10 minutes, saw the 4ft wide inflatable expand to an impressive 20ft in diameter. Shortly after completing an orbital lap of Earth, LOFTID detached from the upper stage of the launch vehicle and began its perilous descent through the atmosphere while traveling at over 18,000 mph.
Incredibly, the aeroshell was able to survive the re-entry temperature of 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit and decelerate to safely deploy parachutes before crashing hundreds of miles off the coast of Hawaii.
With this proven technology, NASA may consider using it in future missions to land humans on Mars and explore distant worlds, including Venus and Saturn’s moon Titan.
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Anthony is a freelance contributor covering science and gaming news for IGN. He has over eight years of experience covering groundbreaking developments in multiple scientific fields and has absolutely no time for your shenanigans. Follow him on Twitter @BeardConGamer
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