May 29, 2023
'Big Step' To Send Crew To Mars As NASA Aces Inflatable Spacecraft Test

‘Big Step’ To Send Crew To Mars As NASA Aces Inflatable Spacecraft Test

NASA has tested a new way to land on Mars that could make future missions to the red planet and beyond feasible and affordable.

The 20-foot-diameter inflatable heat shield that could one day help astronauts land on Mars self-inflated and re-entered Earth’s atmosphere Thursday, blasting off about 500 miles off the coast of Hawaii.

NASA is expected to reveal the results of the test flight after the recovery of the aircraft, which is a collaboration with United Launch Alliance (ULA).

It had launched earlier Thursday on a ULA Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Space Base in California along with a polar-orbiting weather satellite called JPSS-2.

Called the Low Earth Flight Test for Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID), it’s an inflatable heat shield—commonly referred to as an airfoil—that could allow heavier payloads to land on Mars, as well as Venus and Saturn’s moon Titan.

After JPSS-2 reached orbit, LOFTID was re-entered from low-Earth orbit to see if it could decelerate and survive re-entry.

Since aircraft like the LOFTID are inflatable, they are not limited in size by the shape of the rocket fairing. While the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) had to be folded origami-style into a custom rocket fairing, inflatable aircraft are not limited by the diameter of a rocket fairing.

This means they can be much larger than conventional rigid airfoils, which in turn provide more drag to slow heavy payloads as they enter a planet’s atmosphere – thereby avoiding a collision.

It’s crucial for a future manned mission to Mars—or anywhere else—because tons of equipment would be needed. Airpods could also one day be used to return large components and samples to Earth.

“The LOFTID test represents an important step toward the flight readiness of large-area heat shields,” said Sadaf Sobhani, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University and a former researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center, adding that there has been substantial progress on the inflatable and mechanically developing technology over the past decade or so.

“It’s important because future exploration missions, such as landing humans on Mars, will require heat shields much larger than what can fit in a rocket payload,” he said. “Developing technologies will enable such otherwise unattainable missions.”

Inflatable heat shields like LOFTID could also make space access more accessible.

“Demonstrating new technologies through flight testing is one of the primary ways we expand the capabilities for future missions,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “We are pleased to work with United Launch Alliance, NASA science and NOAA colleagues to conduct this technology demonstration in conjunction with the launch of JPSS-2.”

JPSS-2 is a satellite operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that will circle the globe 14 times a day while 512 miles above Earth.

I wish you clear skies and open eyes.

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