NASA's heatshield promises advanced space exploration and help to fight forest fires

At number 14 on IE's 22 best innovations of 2022, is a new heatshield technology from NASA that's helping put out fires.
Chris Young
NASA's LOFTID heatshield.
NASA's LOFTID heatshield.

Ibrahim Can/Interesting Engineering/NASA

As the global space industry gears up for human space exploration of Mars and beyond, it will need technologies that make atmospheric entries innumerably safer.

That's where NASA's Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) heatshield technology comes in. This year, the US space agency successfully tested the novel heatshield technology in orbit for the first time.

It essentially acts as a massive inflatable break system for spacecraft, making spaceflight much safer. It could help humans safely land on Mars and also explore the further reaches of our solar system.

Not only that, the technology also has a very practical application here on Earth as it can be used to fight forest fires.

This is number 14 in Interesting Engineering's series, showcasing the best innovations of 2022. Check back to discover more about groundbreaking AI, unique solar panels, new 3D printing methods, and much more.

NASA's successful orbital heatshield test

LOFTID was launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Nov.10. It was deployed into orbit from an altitude of approximately 78 miles (125 km) and it performed a splashdown in the ocean near Hawaii roughly two hours after launch.

The test flight was carried out to analyze the potential of a technology that could one day allow space missions to carry a compact, pliable heatshield in a payload compartment that can be unfolded before the mission enters its destination planet's atmosphere.

This technology could prove vital due to the dangers of entering a planet's atmosphere that has different conditions to Earth. Mars' atmosphere, for example, is much thinner than Earth's and the descent of NASA's Perseverance rover into its atmosphere was famously described as "seven minutes of terror".

LOFTID technology could help firefighters on Earth

NASA's six-meter-diameter (20 feet) LOFTID aeroshell acts as a massive brake system, creating much more atmospheric drag than traditional, much smaller aeroshells. NASA explains on its website that the technology was built to withstand atmosphere reentry temperatures in excess of 2900°F (1600°C).

The space agency adds that the heatshield has "three layers: an exterior ceramic fiber cloth layer to maintain integrity of the surface, a middle layer of insulators to inhibit heat transmission, and an interior layer that prevents hot gas from reaching the inflatable structure. The flexible thermal protection system is also foldable, packable, deployable, and tailorable."

LOFTID is one of many examples of technologies built for space that could also have incredibly important practical applications on Earth. The heat shielding material developed for LOFTID, in fact, has already been used to build a prototype heat shelter to help tackle forest fires. NASA has worked with the U.S. Forest Service's Missoula Technology and Development Center (MTDC) to develop more effective fire shelters to save lives, meaning their heat-resistant material could save human beings in space and on Earth.