Heat shield that could land humans on Mars, hitchhike to space
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When a polar satellite designed to improve weather forecasting was launched early Thursday, an experimental heat shield followed. It could land humans on Mars.
The two separate missions were both launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex-3 at Vandenberg Space Force Base in Lompoc, California.
Both missions were originally scheduled to take off on November 1, but a faulty battery on the rocket’s top stage delayed them. Engineers swapped out and retested the battery to clear the way for a new launch date.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA have been launching weather satellites since 1960. The Joint Polar Satellite System-2, or JPSS-2, will be the third satellite in a fleet of NOAA’s latest generation of polar environment satellites.
The orbiter will collect data that can help scientists predict and prepare for extreme weather events such as hurricanes, blizzards and floods.
The satellite can monitor wildfires and volcanoes, measure the ocean and atmosphere, and detect dust and smoke in the air. It will also monitor ozone and atmospheric temperatures, which will provide more insight into the climate crisis.
Once it is in orbit and looping from the North Pole to the South Pole, the satellite will be renamed NOAA-21. The satellite will observe every spot on Earth at least twice a day, according to NOAA. And when you check the weather on your phone, it is fed by data captured by the satellite.
The JPSS-2 will join two other satellites, the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership and NOAA-20, which together form the Joint Polar Satellite System.
“JPSS provides more than twice-daily observations over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that help meteorologists monitor weather systems where we don’t have the advantage of weather balloons, and only limited buoys, compared to the dense network of weather stations over land,” Jordan said. Gerth, meteorologist and satellite scientist at NOAA’s National Weather Service before launch.
A secondary payload that takes a ride on the rocket is NASA’s Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator Technology Demonstration, or LOFTID.
The mission is designed to test the inflatable heat shield technology needed to land manned missions on Mars and larger robotic missions on Venus or Saturn’s moon Titan. Something like LOFTID can also be used in returning hefty payloads to Earth.
Sending robotic scouts or humans to other worlds with atmospheres can be challenging because current aeroshells, or heat shields, in use depend on the size of a rocket’s shroud.
But an inflatable aeroshell could circumvent that dependency — and send heavier missions to different planets.
When a spacecraft enters a planet’s atmosphere, it is hit with aerodynamic forces, which help slow it down.
On Mars, where the atmosphere is only 1% of the density of Earth’s atmosphere, extra help is needed to create the drag needed to slow down a spacecraft and land it safely.
That’s why NASA engineers think a large deployable aeroshell like LOFTID, which inflates and is protected by a flexible heat shield, could put the brakes on as it travels through the Martian atmosphere.
The aeroshell is designed to create more drag in the upper atmosphere to help the spacecraft slow down more quickly, which also avoids some of the super-intensive heating. The LOFTID demonstration is approximately 6 meters wide.
About 90 minutes after JPSS-2 and LOFITD are launched to space, the tech demo will detach from the polar satellite once it enters orbit and LOFTID’s incredibly short mission will begin.
After inflation, LOFTID is reoriented by the top stage of the rocket.
Next, the aeroshell will separate from the upper stage and attempt to re-enter the atmosphere from low Earth orbit to see if the heat shield is effective at slowing down and surviving.
Sensors aboard the LOFTID record the heat shield’s experience during its terrifying descent. Six cameras will capture 360-degree video of LOFTID’s experiment, said Joe Del Corso, LOFTID project manager at NASA’s Langley Research Center.
Upon return, LOFTID will face temperatures reaching 3,000 degrees Fahrenhei and reaching speeds of nearly 18,000 miles per hour. It will be the ultimate test of the materials used to build the inflatable structure, including a woven ceramic fabric called silicon carbide.
It is expected to crash about 500 miles off the coast of Hawaii, where a team will recover the aeroshell.
Currently, NASA can land one ton (2,205 pounds) on the surface of Mars, like the Perseverance rover the size of a car. But something like LOFTID could land between 20 and 40 tons (44,092 to 88,184 pounds) on Mars, Del Corso said.
The results of Thursday’s demonstration could determine the entry, descent and landing technology that will one day bring human crews to the surface of Mars.
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