NASA has successfully flown an inflatable heat shield down through Earth’s atmosphere, in a technology demonstration 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 re-entry. Without sufficient protection, the extreme aerodynamic forces and friction-induced heat triggered by a spacecraft striking the atmosphere at high speeds would inevitably tear it apart in a fiery display.
In order to make an atmospheric descent safe, NASA and its partners would need to figure out a system of heatproofing their spacecraft, and allowing them to survive long enough for aerodynamic drag to slow the spacecraft to a safe velocity to deploy parachutes.
NASA Black Hole Gallery
To this end, engineers developed a series of protective coatings – often made from metallic materials or ceramic tiles – that, once attached to the bottom of a spacecraft, were designed to absorb the otherwise devastating temperatures experienced during re-entry.
This approach has remained largely unchanged up to the modern day and has been proven to work well as a thermal defense against the dense particulate soup of the Earth’s atmosphere.
However, a significant down side to the conventional heat shield is that they are incredibly inflexible, and can only ever be as large as the protective rocket fairing that surrounds them. This makes them an unattractive option for scientists planning a future crewed mission to Mars.
How LOFTID might help land future astronauts on Mars: https://t.co/eDRGA9TbKf pic.twitter.com/1y9Tf34KtJ
— NASA (@NASA) November 10, 2022
The atmosphere of the Red Planet is significantly less dense than that of the Earth, and because of this a larger surface area is needed to slow a spacecraft down in time to perform a safe landing. Developing such a heat shield is a critical step to making humanity a multi-planetary species.
To this end, NASA and its partners have been working on an inflatable cone-shaped heat shield that could be launched in a compact configuration, and later expanded in space to provide a massive surface area with which to attract atmospheric drag. The first orbital demonstration of the technology has been imaginatively named the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator, or LOFTID for short.
The LOFTID prototype is made up of a series of connected inflatable tubes that, on the atmosphere-facing side, are covered in a heat-resistant skin of woven ceramic fabric.
On November 10 at 4:49 am ET, NASA launched the aeroshell into the frigid space environment atop an Atlas V rocket for its first orbital test – a literal trial by fire. During ascent, the deflated heat shield was stacked neatly beneath a state-of-the-art weather satellite en route to a high polar orbit.
Roughly an hour and ten minutes into the mission – with the weather satellite safely detached and on its way – NASA scientists gave the command for LOFTID to power up and inflate.
The process, which took around 10 minutes, saw the tightly packed 4 ft-wide inflatable expand to an impressive 20 ft in diameter. Soon after completing an orbital lap of Earth, LOFTID detached from the upper stage of the launch vehicle and began its perilous descent through the atmosphere while traveling at over 18,000 mph.
Incredibly, the aeroshell was able to survive the 2,600-degree Fahrenheit temperature of re-entry, and decelerate to safely deploy parachutes before splashing down 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 the Saturnian moon Titan.
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Anthony is a freelance contributor covering science and video gaming news for IGN. He has over eight years of experience of covering breaking developments in multiple scientific fields and absolutely no time for your shenanigans. Follow him on Twitter @BeardConGamer