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When a large experimental heat shield inflated in space and encountered the harsh return of Earth’s atmosphere last week, the aeroshell survived — and NASA officials deemed it a “major success.”
A technology demonstration could be the basis for landing technology that puts humans on Mars.
A low Earth orbit flight test of the Inflatable Deceleration Technology Demonstration, or LOFTID, led to a flight into space on Nov. 10 as a secondary payload alongside the Joint Satellite System Polar Satellite-2, a polar weather satellite.
After LOFTID separated from the polar satellite and inflated, it re-entered the atmosphere from low Earth orbit.
Upon re-entry, LOFTID encountered temperatures of up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,649 degrees Celsius) and speeds of nearly 18,000 mph (28,968 kilometers per hour) — the ultimate test for the materials used to build the inflatable hull, which includes a woven ceramic texture called silicon carbide. .
The heat shield and backup data recorder splashed into the Pacific Ocean about two hours after launch, hundreds of miles off the coast of Hawaii, where a team on a boat was stationed to retrieve the items.
The raw data helped the team determine whether the airframe was effective in slowing down and surviving a steep dive from low Earth orbit into the ocean. The result: “A very resounding yeah,” said Trudy Curtis, director of technical offerings for 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 massive payloads to Earth. The current air shields or heat shields used depend on the size of the missile casing. But an inflatable antenna could sail around that dependency — and open up heavier missions to different planets.
LOFTID was about 20 feet (6 m) wide.
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% as dense as Earth’s, extra help is needed to create the drag necessary to slow down and land a spacecraft safely.
That’s why NASA engineers think a large, deployable antenna like LOFTID’s, which swells and is protected by a flexible heat shield, could hit the brakes while traveling through the Martian atmosphere. The aeroshell is designed to create more clouds in the upper atmosphere to help the spacecraft slow down sooner, which also prevents some superheating.
Currently, NASA can land a metric ton (2,205 lb) rover on Mars, like the car-sized Perseverance rover. Something like LOFTID could land anywhere from 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 exterior “looked absolutely pristine,” said John DeNono, LOFTID chief engineer at NASA Langley. “She wouldn’t have known she had such an intense comeback,” he said.
Indeed, the inflatable structure is in good shape, it looks like it can be reused and flown again, Diono 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 encountered at various points in its journey.
After the full study is complete, scientists can use the results to work on the next, larger generation of LOFTID. The experience is tailored to the ride demo with the polar satellite. Next, LOFTID needs to expand to test how it will perform on a mission to Mars, which would require increasing its overall size by three to four times.
The mission, launched just days before a giant Artemis I rocket is set to make its journey to the Moon and back, is a “major success” that shares a common goal with the Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the Moon and eventually land crews on Mars.
“In order to send people into space on the Moon or to send them to Mars, we need stuff — a lot of it, which means we need to put a lot of mass into space,” del Corso said.
“We now have the ability to put heavy payloads into space and bring them back down. These two successes are huge steps in enabling human access and exploration. We’re going into space and we want to be able to stay there.”
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