Space agency NASA has tested a new way of landing on Mars that could make future missions to the red planet and beyond both possible and affordable.
The 20-feet diameter inflatable heat shield, which could one day help land astronauts on Mars, autonomously inflated and re-entered Earth’s atmosphere Thursday, splashing down about 500 miles off the coast of Hawaii.
NASA is expected to reveal the results of the test flight after the recovery of the aeroshell, which is a partnership with United Launch Alliance (ULA).
It had been launched earlier on Thursday on a ULA Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California along with a polar-orbiting weather satellite called JPSS-2.
Called the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID), it’s an inflatable heat shield—commonly referred to as an aeroshell—that could enable landing heavier payloads on Mars, but also on Venus as well as Saturn’s moon Titan.
After JPSS-2 reached orbit LOFTID was put on a reentry trajectory from low-Earth orbit to see if it could both slow down and survive re-entry.
Since aeroshells like LOFTID are inflatable they’re not limited in size by the shape of the rocket fairing. Whereas the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) had to be folded-up origami-style in a custom-built rocket fairing, inflatable aeroshells are not limited by the diameter of a rocket fairing.
That means they can be much larger than conventional rigid aeroshells, which in turn provides more drag to slow down heavy payloads as they enter the atmosphere of a planet—thus avoiding a crash.
It’s crucial to a future crewed mission to Mars—or anywhere else—because many tons of equipment would be needed. Aeroshells could also one day be used to return large components and samples to Earth.
“The LOFTID test represents a major step towards flight readiness of large surface area heat shields,” said Sadaf Sobhani, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University and a former research associate at the NASA Ames Research Center, adding that there have been substantial advancements in inflatable and mechanically deployable tech in the past decade or so.
“It’s important because future exploration missions, such as landing humans on Mars, will require heat shields much larger than what can fit within a rocket payload,” she said. “Deployable technologies will enable such otherwise unattainable missions.”
Inflatable heat shields like LOFTID could also make access to space more affordable.
“Proving new technologies through flight test is one of the main ways we expand capabilities for future missions,” said Jim Reuter, associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “We were pleased to work with our United Launch Alliance, NASA science and NOAA colleagues to perform this technology demonstration in conjunction with JPSS-2’s launch.”
JPSS-2 is a satellite operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which will circle the globe 14 times a day while 512 miles above Earth.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.