NASA Loftid Experiment

NASA calls the inflatable heat shield a “huge success” that could land humans on Mars

NASA officials deemed the aeroshell a “huge success” after it was inflated in space and had to withstand the harsh reentry of Earth’s atmosphere.

This technology demonstration could serve as the foundation for landing technology that places humans on Mars.

The Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator Technology Demonstration or LOFTID was launched on November 10, as a secondary payload. It was also launched alongside the Joint Polar Satellite System-2 (a polar weather satellite).

After LOFTID was separated from the polar satellite and inflated the aeroshell reentered low-Earth orbit into the atmosphere.

LOFTID was subject to temperatures of 3,000F (1,649F Celsius) during reentry. It also experienced speeds of almost 18,000 miles an hour (28.968 kilometers per hour). This is the ultimate test of the materials used in the construction and maintenance of the inflatable structure.

Two hours after launch, the heat shield and backup data recorder fell into the Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles offshore from Hawaii. A team of boatmen was there to retrieve the items.

The team used preliminary data to determine if the aeroshell was capable of slowing down and surviving a steep plunge from low-Earth orbit into the ocean. Trudy Kortes (director of technology demonstrations at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate) said that the result was “a pretty resounding no.”

It is estimated that a complete study of LOFTID’s performance will take approximately one year.

This mission will test the inflatable heat shield technology. It could land larger robotic missions on Venus and Saturn’s moon Titan, or return large payloads to Earth. The size of the rocket’s shroud determines how aeroshells or heat shields are used. An inflatable aeroshell could bypass this dependency and allow for heavier missions to other planets.

The LOFTID display measured approximately 20 feet (6 meters) in length.

Aerodynamic forces help slow down a spacecraft when it enters the atmosphere of a planet. Extra help is required to create drag on Mars where the atmosphere has a density of less than 1% of Earth’s.

NASA engineers believe that a large, inflatable aeroshell such as LOFTID could be used to put the brakes on while the spacecraft is traveling through the Martian atmosphere. It inflates and is covered by a heat shield. To help speed up the spacecraft, the aeroshell creates more drag in the upper atmosphere. This also helps to prevent some of the superintense heat.

NASA currently can land 1 metric ton (2,205 pounds), on the Martian surface. This is similar to the Perseverance rover, which is about the size of a car. However, something like LOFTID can land on Mars between 20 and 40 metric tons (44.092 to 88.184 pounds), according to Joe Del Corso. He is the LOFTID project manager at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton.

John DiNonno (LOFTID chief engineer, NASA Langley) said that when the recovery team pulled the aeroshell from the ocean, they were shocked to see the exterior “looked pristine”. He said, “You wouldn’t have known it had a very intensive reentry.”

The inflatable structure looks great and could easily be reused. However, DiNonno stated that it still needs to be tested before such a decision can be made.

There are still a lot of data to process. This includes specific temperatures LOFTID encountered at various points during its flight.

Scientists could use the results to create the next generation of LOFTID after the study is completed. This experiment was intended to be used as a ride-along demonstration with the polar satellite. Next, LOFTID must be scaled up to see how it performs on a mission toward Mars. This might mean increasing its overall size by three- to four times.

This mission launched days before the Artemis I mega-moon rocket took off to go to the moon. It is a huge success that shares a common goal.

Del Corso stated, “To put people on the moon and send them to Mars we need stuff. This means that we have to put a lot more mass into space.”

“We are now able to send heavy payloads into space, and bring them back to earth. These are two huge achievements in human exploration and access. We are going to space, and we want to stay there.”

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