NASA’s inflatable heat shield could land humans on Mars

NASA’s inflatable heat shield could land humans on Mars

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When a large experimental heat shield inflated in space and faced a brutal re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere last week, the plane survived — and NASA officials called it a “huge success.”

The technology demonstration could underpin the landing technology that puts humans on the surface of Mars.

The Low Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Inducer Technology Demonstration, or LOFTID, made a trip to space Nov. 10 as a secondary payload along with the Joint Polar Satellite System-2, a polar weather satellite.

After LOFTID separated from the polar satellite and inflated, the airframe re-entered the atmosphere from low Earth orbit.

On re-entry, LOFTID encountered temperatures that reached 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 of the materials used to construct the the inflatable structure, which includes a woven ceramic fabric called silicon carbide.

The heat shield and recorder to back up data scattered in the Pacific Ocean about two hours after launch, hundreds of miles off the coast of Hawaii, where a boat crew was deployed to retrieve the items.

The preliminary data helped the team determine whether the aero-envelope was effective in decelerating and surviving a steep dive from low Earth orbit to the ocean. The result: “a pretty resounding yes,” said Trudy Cortes, director of technology demonstrations in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

A full study of LOFTID’s effectiveness is expected to take about a year.

The mission aims to test inflatable heat shield technology, which could also land larger robotic missions on Venus or Saturn’s moon Titan, or return heavy payloads to Earth. The current air projectiles or heat shields used depend on the size of the missile’s jacket. But an inflatable avionics shell could circumvent that dependency — and open up the possibility of sending heavier missions to different planets.

The LOFTID demo was about 20 feet (6 meters) in diameter.

When a spacecraft enters a planet’s atmosphere, it experiences aerodynamic forces that 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 necessary drag to slow and safely land a spacecraft.

Members of the LOFTID research team are photographed with the airplane in Hawaii.

That’s why NASA engineers think a large deployable aircraft like the LOFTID, which inflates and is protected by a flexible heat shield, could hit the brakes as it travels through the Martian atmosphere. The aerofoil is designed to create more drag in the upper atmosphere to help the spacecraft decelerate sooner, which also prevents some of the superheating.

NASA can currently land 1 metric ton (2,205 pounds) on the Martian surface with the car-sized Perseverance rover. But something like LOFTID could land between 20 to 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 airframe out of the ocean, they were surprised to find that the outside “looked absolutely pristine,” said John DiNono, LOFTID chief engineer at NASA Langley. “You wouldn’t know there’s a lot of intense re-entry,” he said.

In fact, the inflatable structure is in such good condition that it looks like it could be reused and flown again, Dinono said, but it needs rigorous testing before such a decision is made.

There is still a huge amount of data to process, including specific temperatures LOFTID faced at various points in its flight.

A double rainbow appeared in the sky above the LOFTID heat shield as it was transferred to Hawaii Harbor.

After the full study, scientists can use the findings to work on the next, larger generation of LOFTID. The experiment was designed to fit as a traveling demonstration with the polar satellite. LOFTID must then be scaled up to test how it will perform on a mission to Mars, which may require increasing its overall size three to four times.

The mission that started just days before The Artemis I mega lunar rocket blasted off on a journey to the moon and vice versa, is a “huge success” that shares a common goal with the Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the moon and eventually send crews to Mars.

“To send people into space to the moon or to send them to Mars, we need stuff — lots of it, which means we need to put a lot of mass in space,” Del Corso said.

“We now have the ability to both launch heavy payloads into space and bring them back.” These two successes are huge steps in enabling human access and research. We go to space and we want to be able to stay there.

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