NASA has successfully flown an inflatable heat shield down through Earth’s atmosphere, in a demonstration of technology that could one day help safely land spacecraft on the surface of Mars and beyond.
Since the advent of human spaceflight, scientists and engineers have grappled with the inherent dangers of atmospheric reentry. Without adequate protection, the extreme aerodynamic forces and friction-induced heat generated by a spacecraft hitting the atmosphere at high speeds would inevitably tear it into a fiery display.
In order to make atmospheric descent safe, NASA and its partners will need to find a system to thermally insulate their spacecraft and allow them to survive long enough for aerodynamic drag to slow the spacecraft down to a safe speed to deploy parachutes.
NASA Black Hole Gallery
To that end, engineers developed a series of protective coatings – often made of metallic materials or ceramic tiles – that, once attached to the bottom of a spacecraft, were designed to absorb the otherwise devastating temperatures experienced during reentry.
This approach has remained largely unchanged into modern times and has been shown to work well as a thermal defense against the dense particle soup of Earth’s atmosphere.
However, a major drawback of conventional heat shields is that they are incredibly rigid and can be as large as the protective missile fairing that surrounds them. This makes them an unattractive option for scientists planning a future manned mission to Mars.
I am going #LOFTID! Check out our inflatable heat shield @NASA_Technology test separate from it @ulalaunch Centaur Advanced Missile. Watch live via splashdown: https://t.co/BgScjbdJW6
How LOFTID can 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, so a larger surface area is required to slow a spacecraft in time to make a safe landing. The development of such a heat shield is a critical step for humanity to become a multiplanetary species.
To that end, NASA and its collaborators are working on an inflatable cone-shaped heat shield that could be launched into a compact configuration and later expanded into space to provide a huge surface area with which to attract atmospheric gravity. The first orbital demonstration of the technology was imaginatively called the Low Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator, or LOFTID for short.
LOFTID’s prototype consists of a series of connected inflatable tubes that, on the side facing the atmosphere, are covered by a heat-resistant skin of woven ceramic fabric.
On November 10 at 4:49 am ET, NASA launched the airframe into the frigid space environment atop an Atlas V rocket for its first orbital test — a literal test by fire. During ascent, the deflated heat shield stowed neatly beneath a state-of-the-art weather satellite en route to a high polar orbit.
About an hour and ten minutes into the mission—with the weather satellite safely deployed and en route—NASA scientists gave LOFTID the command to activate and inflate.
The process, which took around 10 minutes, saw the tightly packed 4ft wide inflatable expand to an impressive 20ft diameter. Immediately after completing an Earth orbit, LOFTID detached from the launch vehicle’s upper stage and began its perilous descent through the atmosphere while traveling at over 18,000 mph.
Amazingly, the aircraft was able to survive the 2,600-degree Fahrenheit temperature of reentry and slow down to safely deploy parachutes before ejecting hundreds of miles off the coast of Hawaii.
With the technology a proven success, NASA could look to use 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 who covers science news and video games for IGN. He has over eight years of experience covering important developments in multiple scientific fields and has no time for your bullshit. Follow him on Twitter @BeardConGamer
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