NASA heat shield could land humans on Mars

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When a large experimental heat shield inflated in space and faced the brutal reentry of Earth’s atmosphere last week, the aeroshell survived — and NASA officials have deemed it a “huge success.”

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

The Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator technology demonstration, or LOFTID, hitched a November 10 ride to space as a secondary payload along with the Joint Polar Satellite System-2, a polar weather satellite.

The inflatable aeroshell looked to be in great condition after recovery, proving it can survive the rigors of atmospheric entry.

After LOFTID separated from the polar satellite and inflated, the aeroshell reentered the atmosphere from low-Earth orbit.

Upon reentry, LOFTID faced temperatures that reached 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,649 degrees Celsius) and hit speeds of nearly 18,000 miles per hour (28,968 kilometers per hour) — the ultimate test for the materials used to construct the inflatable structure, which includes a woven ceramic fabric called silicon carbide.

The heat shield and backup data recorder splashed down in 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 recover the items.

Preliminary data helped the team determine if the aeroshell was effective at slowing down 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 at 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 the inflatable heat shield technology that could also land larger robotic missions on Venus or Saturn’s moon Titan or return hefty payloads to Earth. Current aeroshells, or heat shields, in use depend on the size of a rocket’s shroud. But an inflatable aeroshell could circumnavigate that dependency — and open up sending heavier missions to different planets.

The LOFTID demonstration measured about 20 feet (6 meters) across.

When a spacecraft enters the atmosphere of a planet, it’s hit with aerodynamic forces, which 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 drag necessary to slow and safely land a spacecraft.

Members of the LOFTID research team are pictured with the aeroshell in Hawaii.

That’s why NASA engineers think a large deployable aeroshell like LOFTID, which inflates and is protected by a flexible heat shield, could put on the brakes while traveling down 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 superintense heating.

Currently, NASA can land 1 metric ton (2,205 pounds) on the Martian surface, like the car-size 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 hauled the aeroshell out of the ocean, they were surprised to find that the outside “looked absolutely pristine,” said John DiNonno, LOFTID chief engineer at NASA Langley. “You would not have known it had a very intense reentry,” he said.

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

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

A double rainbow appeared across the sky over the LOFTID heat shield as it was transferred at port in Hawaii.

After 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 ride-along demo with the polar satellite. Next, LOFTID 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 launched just days before the Artemis I mega moon rocket lifted off on a journey to the moon and back, is a “huge 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 put people into space on the moon or send them to Mars, we need stuff — lots of it, 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 to bring them back down. These two successes are huge steps in enabling human access and exploration. We’re going to space and we want to be able to stay there.”

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