NASA’s inflatable heat shield could land humans on Mars

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When a large experimental heat shield was blown up in space last week and faced with the relentless reentry of Earth’s atmosphere, the aeroshell survived — and NASA officials deemed it a “massive success.”

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

The Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of a demonstration of the inflatable decelerator technology, or LOFTID, lifted off to space on Nov. 10 as a secondary payload along with the Joint Polar Satellite System-2, a polar weather satellite.

After LOFTID detached from the polar satellite and inflated, the aeroshell re-entered the atmosphere from low Earth orbit.

Upon return, 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, including a woven ceramic substance 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 was stationed on a boat to recover the items.

Preliminary data helped the team determine whether the aeroshell was effective at slowing down and surviving the steep plunge 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 approximately one 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 send hefty payloads back to Earth. The current aeroshells or heat shields in use depend on the size of a missile’s shroud. But an inflatable aeroshell could get around that dependency — and enable sending heavier missions to different planets.

The LOFTID demonstration was about 6 meters wide.

When a spacecraft enters a planet’s atmosphere, it is hit by aerodynamic forces, which slow it down. On Mars, where the atmosphere is less than 1% of the density of Earth’s atmosphere, extra help is needed to create the drag needed to land a spacecraft slowly and safely.

Members of the LOFTID research team are pictured wearing 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 hit the brakes as it travels through the Martian atmosphere. The aeroshell is designed to create more drag in the upper atmosphere to slow down the spacecraft more quickly, which also prevents some of the superintense heating.

Currently, NASA can land 1 metric ton (2,205 pounds) on the surface of Mars, such as the car-sized Perseverance rover. But something like LOFTID could land anywhere from 20 to 40 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 salvage team retrieved the aeroshell from the ocean, they were surprised to find that the exterior “looked absolutely flawless,” said John DiNonno, LOFTID chief engineer at NASA Langley. “You wouldn’t have known it had a very intense return,” 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 it needs thorough testing before making such a decision.

A huge amount of data remains to be processed, including specific temperatures encountered by LOFTID at various points during its flight.

A double rainbow appeared in the sky over the LOFTID heat shield as it transferred into Hawaii harbor.

After the full study is complete, scientists can use the findings to work on the next, larger generation of LOFTID. The experiment was designed to fit like a demo to drive with the polar satellite. Then LOFTID needs to be scaled up to test how it would perform on a mission to Mars, which may require increasing its overall size by three to four times.

The mission, which launched just days before the launch of the mega-moon rocket Artemis I for a trip to the moon and back, is a “massive success” that shares a common goal with the Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the moon and eventually land crews on Mars.

“To send people into space on the moon or send them to Mars, we need stuff — a lot, which means we have to put a lot of mass into space,” Del Corso said.

“We now have the ability to both send heavy payloads into space and bring them back down. These two successes are huge steps in enabling human access and exploration. We are going to space and we want to be able to stay there.”

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