NASA’s inflatable heat shield survives atmospheric fire test

NASA’s inflatable heat shield survives atmospheric fire test

NASA has successfully flown an inflatable heat shield through Earth’s atmosphere, in a technology demonstration that could one day help spacecraft land safely on the surface of Mars and beyond.

Since the advent of manned spaceflight, scientists and engineers have struggled with the inherent dangers of reentry. Without adequate protection, the extreme aerodynamic forces and frictional heat caused by a spacecraft hitting the atmosphere at high speeds would inevitably tear it apart in a fiery spectacle.

To make an atmospheric descent safe, NASA and its partners would need to devise a system to heat-resistant their spacecraft and allow them to survive long enough for aerodynamic drag to slow the spacecraft to a safe speed to launch parachutes. to put.

To this end, engineers developed a series of protective coatings — often made of metallic materials or ceramic tiles — that, once attached to the bottom of a spacecraft, were designed to absorb the otherwise devastating temperatures experienced during reentry.

This approach has remained largely unchanged to this day and has been proven to work well as a thermal defense against the dense particle soup of Earth’s atmosphere.

A major drawback of conventional heat shields, however, is that they are incredibly inflexible and can only be as large as the protective missile streamline that surrounds them. This makes them an unattractive option for scientists planning a future manned mission to Mars.

The Red Planet’s atmosphere is significantly less dense than Earth’s, so a larger surface area is needed to slow down a spacecraft in time for a safe landing. Developing such a heat shield is a crucial step in making humanity a multi-planetary species.

To that 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 into space to provide a massive surface area to attract atmospheric drag. The first orbital demonstration of the technology has been fancifully dubbed the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator, or LOFTID for short.

The LOFTID prototype consists of a series of interconnected inflatable tubes covered on the atmosphere side with a heat-resistant skin of woven ceramic fabric.

LOFTID pictured on the deck of the salvage ship after surviving the atmospheric reentry (Image credit: ULA)

LOFTID pictured on the deck of the salvage ship after surviving the atmospheric reentry (Image credit: ULA)

On Nov. 10 at 4:49 a.m. 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 under a state-of-the-art weather satellite on its way to a high polar orbit.

About an hour and ten minutes into the mission — with the weather satellite safely detached and en route — NASA scientists instructed LOFTID to power up and blow up.

The process, which took about 10 minutes, saw the tightly packed 4 ft wide inflatable boat expand to an impressive 20 ft in diameter. Shortly after completing an orbital orbit of Earth, LOFTID disengaged from the launch vehicle’s upper stage and began its perilous descent through the atmosphere while traveling at more than 18,000 mph.

Incredibly, the aeroshell was able to survive the 2,600-degree Fahrenheit temperature of the reentry and slow down to safely deploy parachutes before splashing down hundreds of miles off the coast of Hawaii.

Now that the technology is a proven success, NASA could use it in future missions to land humans on Mars and explore distant worlds, including Venus and Saturn’s moon Titan.

Checking out IGN’s science page for more updates from the weird and wonderful world of science.

Anthony provides science and video game news for IGN as a freelance contributor. He has over eight years of experience covering groundbreaking advances in multiple scientific fields and has absolutely no time for your shenanigans. Follow him on Twitter @BeardConGamer

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