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When a large experimental heat shield inflated in space and faced the brutal reentry of Earth’s atmosphere last week, the aeroshell survived – and NASA officials considered it a “huge success”.
The technology demonstration could be the basis for landing technology that puts humans on the surface of Mars.
The low Earth orbit flight test of an Inflatable Decelerator Technology Demonstration, or LOFTID, hitchhiked Nov. 10 in space as a secondary payload with the Joint Polar Satellite System-2, a weather satellite polar.
After LOFTID separated from the polar satellite and inflated, the aeroshell reentered the atmosphere from low Earth orbit.
Upon re-entry, LOFTID faced temperatures reaching 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,649 degrees Celsius) and reached speeds of nearly 18,000 miles per hour (28,968 kilometers per hour) – the ultimate test for the materials used to construct the inflatable structure, which includes a ceramic woven fabric called silicon carbide.
The heat shield and backup data logger crashed in the Pacific Ocean about two hours after launch, hundreds of miles off the coast of Hawaii, where a crew on a boat was stationed to recover the objects.
The preliminary data helped the team determine if the aeroshell was effective in slowing down and surviving the steep dive from low Earth orbit into the ocean. The result: “a pretty resounding yes,” said Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations at NASA’s Space Technology Missions Directorate.
A full study of the performance of LOFTID should take approximately one 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 send heavy payloads back to Earth. The current aeroshells, or heat shields, used depend on the size of a rocket’s fairing. But an inflatable aeroshell could circumvent this dependency – and open up sending heavier 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 and safely land a spacecraft.
That’s why NASA engineers believe that a large deployable aeroshell like LOFTID, which inflates and is protected by a flexible heat shield, could brake while traveling through the Martian atmosphere. The aeroshell is designed to create more drag in the upper atmosphere to help the spacecraft slow down sooner, which also prevents some of the super intense heating.
Currently, NASA can land 1 metric ton (2,205 pounds) on the Martian surface, 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 exterior “looked absolutely pristine,” said John DiNonno, LOFTID chief engineer at NASA Langley. “You wouldn’t have known there was a very intense comeback,” he said.
In fact, the inflatable is in such good condition that it looks like it could be reused and flown again, DiNonno said, but it needs rigorous testing before making such a decision.
There is still a huge amount of data to process, including the specific temperatures that LOFTID faced at different times during its flight.
Once the full study is complete, scientists could use the results to work on the next larger generation of LOFTID. The experience has been designed to fit a driving demonstration with the polar satellite. Next, LOFTID needs to be scaled up to test its performance on a mission to Mars, which might require increasing its overall size by three to four times.
The mission, which launched just days before the Artemis I mega lunar rocket lifts off on a trip to the moon and back, is a “huge success” that shares a common goal with the Artemis program, which aims to bring humans back to the moon and eventually land crews on Mars.
“In order to get people into space on the Moon or get them to Mars, we need a lot of stuff, 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. Both of these successes are important steps in enabling human access and exploration. We go into space and we want to be able to stay there.
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