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When a large experimental heat shield inflated in space and faced brutal re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere last week, the aeroshell survived, hailed by NASA officials as a “great success.”
The technology demo 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, took a trip to space on November 10 as a secondary payload along with Joint Polar Satellite System-2, a polar weather satellite.
After LOFTID separated from the polar satellite and inflated, the aerodynamic shell re-entered the atmosphere from low-Earth orbit.
Upon reentry, LOFTID faced temperatures reaching 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,649 degrees Celsius) and reaching speeds of nearly 18,000 miles per hour (28,968 kilometers per hour), the ultimate test for the materials used to build the inflatable structure, It includes a woven ceramic fabric called silicon carbide.
the heat shield and backup data recorder splashed in the Pacific Ocean approximately two hours after launch, hundreds of miles off the coast of Hawaii, where a boat team was stationed to recover the items.
Preliminary data helped the team determine if the aeroshell was effective in slowing and surviving the steep dive from low-Earth orbit to 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 heavy payloads to Earth. The current aeroshells, or heat shields, in use depend on the size of a rocket’s casing. But an inflatable aeroshell could circumnavigate that dependency and open up sending heavier missions to different planets.
The LOFTID demo was about 20 feet (6 meters) wide.
When a spacecraft enters a planet’s atmosphere, it is hit by aerodynamic forces that help slow it down. On Mars, where the atmosphere is less than 1% as dense as Earth’s atmosphere, extra help is needed to create the drag needed to slow and safely land a spacecraft.
That’s why NASA engineers think a large deployable aerodynamic shell like LOFTID, which inflates and is protected by a flexible heat shield, could slow down as it travels 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, as 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 that she had a very intense reentry,” he said.
In fact, the inflatable structure is in such good condition that it looks like it could be reused and flown again, DiNonno said, but rigorous testing is needed before making such a determination.
There’s still a lot of data to process, including the specific temperatures LOFTID faced at different 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 travel demo with the polar satellite. LOFTID then needs to be scaled up to test how it would perform on a mission to Mars, which might require increasing its overall size by three to four times.
The mission, which was launched a few days before the The Artemis I lunar megarocket blasted off on a trip to the moon roundtrip, is a “great success” that shares a common goal with the Artemis program, which aims to get humans to the moon and eventually land crews on Mars.
“To get people into space on the moon or to send them to Mars, we need things, lots of them, which means we need 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. These two successes are big steps in enabling human access and exploration. We’re going into space and we want to be able to stay there.”