NASA officials have hailed the aeroshell’s survival last week as a “great success” after it endured the violent reentry of Earth’s atmosphere as a sizable experimental heat shield expanded in space.
The technology demonstration might serve as the basis for landing equipment that places people on Mars’ surface.
The Joint Polar Satellite System-2, a polar weather satellite, and the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID), a technology demonstration, both launched into space on November 10.
From low-Earth orbit, the aeroshell reentered the atmosphere after LOFTID disengaged from the polar satellite and expanded.
The materials used to build the inflatable structure, which includes a woven ceramic fabric known as silicon carbide, were put to the ultimate test upon reentry, when LOFTID encountered temperatures that reached 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,649 degrees Celsius) and reached speeds of nearly 18,000 miles per hour (28,968 kilometres per hour).
A team in a boat was waiting to recover the heat shield and backup data recorder when they splashed down in the Pacific Ocean approximately two hours after launch, hundreds of miles off the coast of Hawaii.
The team used preliminary data to assess if the aeroshell was capable of slowing down and surviving the rapid descent from low-Earth orbit to the ocean. According to Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, the answer was “a pretty loud yes.”
It will take around a year to do a thorough analysis of LOFTID’s performance.
The mission’s goal is to test the inflatable heat shield technology, which may one day allow for the landing of larger robotic missions on Venus or Saturn’s moon Titan or the return of massive payloads to Earth. The size of a rocket’s shroud determines the aeroshells or heat shields currently in use. However, an inflatable aeroshell could avoid such need and allow for the dispatch of heavier missions to many planets.
About 20 feet (6 metres) across, the LOFTID demonstration.
Aerodynamic forces are applied to a spacecraft as it reaches a planet’s atmosphere, which aids in slowing it down. To generate the drag required to slow down and safely land a spaceship on Mars, where the atmosphere is less than 1% the density of Earth’s atmosphere, further assistance is required.
For this reason, according to NASA experts, a sizable deployable aeroshell like LOFTID, which inflates and is shielded by a pliable heat shield, might apply the breaks as it descends into the Martian atmosphere. In order to help the spaceship slow down more quickly and stop part of the superintense heating, the aeroshell is built to produce higher drag in the upper atmosphere.
Currently, NASA is able to land objects weighing up to 1 metric tonne (2,205 pounds), such as the Perseverance rover, on the Martian surface. But according to Joe Del Corso, project manager for LOFTID at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, an object similar to LOFTID may land on Mars weighing 20 to 40 metric tonnes (44,092 to 88,184 pounds).
According to John DiNonno, LOFTID chief engineer at NASA Langley, the aeroshell’s exterior “looked absolutely perfect” when the recovery team lifted it out of the water. He claimed, “You wouldn’t have realised it had a pretty strong reentry.
In fact, the inflatable structure appears to be in such good condition that it might be reused and flown again, according to DiNonno, although this needs to be confirmed through further testing.
There is still a tonne of data to analyse, including the precise temperatures LOFTID experienced at various points during its voyage.
Scientists may use the results from the complete study to develop the larger future generation of LOFTID after it is finished. The test was crafted to function as a ride-along demonstration with the polar satellite. The next step is to scale up LOFTID, maybe by a factor of three to four, to assess how it might work on a voyage to Mars.
The mission is a “great success” and shares a shared objective with the Artemis programme, which intends to send people back to the moon and eventually land troops on Mars. It was launched just days before the Artemis I gigantic moon rocket began its voyage to the moon and back.
Del Corso stated that in order to transport people to Mars or the moon, “we need stuff – lots of it, which implies we need to put a lot of mass into space.”
“We are now capable of sending large payloads into orbit and returning them. These two accomplishments represent important steps toward permitting human access and exploration. We want to be able to stay in space since we’re heading there.