NASA will soon test a massive inflatable heat shield in low Earth orbit

The space agency says it will enable a number of proposed missions to Mars, Venus, and Titan.
Chris Young
An artist's impression of the LOFTID aeroshell.
An artist's impression of the LOFTID aeroshell.

Source: NASA 

NASA recently turned one sci-fi technology into reality by crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid with its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission.

Now, the space agency aims to test a large inflatable aeroshell that could one day be used to deploy large payloads on Mars safely and other planets in the Solar System, a blog post from NASA reveals.

NASA's Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) will run a large inflatable heat shield — that looks remarkably like a flying saucer — through its paces early next month.

NASA to launch LOFTID next month

When a spacecraft enters a planet's atmosphere, aerodynamic drag converts kinetic energy into heat, which helps slow it down as it descends toward the planet's surface.

Mars's atmosphere is much less dense than the Earth's, which makes the process of slowing down spacecraft extremely challenging — as has been seen on several occasions with Mars rover landings. The atmosphere is too thin to decelerate spacecraft as quickly as it would happen on Earth, meaning entry into the atmosphere is much riskier and requires even greater protection than it does on Earth.

NASA will soon test a massive inflatable heat shield in low Earth orbit
The LOFTID aeroshell during testing.

Source: NASA 

That's why NASA will soon test its large deployable LOFTID aeroshell. The agency will launch the massive structure on November 1 aboard a ULA Atlas V rocket. The aeroshell will be that mission's secondary payload after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s JPSS-2 polar-orbiting satellite from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

Taking the "terror" out of atmospheric entries

LOFTID's aeroshell is essentially a large circular inflatable structure protected by a flexible heat shield. The six-meter-diameter (20 feet) aeroshell will act as a massive brake system as it travels through the atmosphere, creating more atmospheric drag than traditional, much smaller aeroshells.

The structure is designed to allow spacecraft to slow down at higher altitudes in the upper atmosphere, meaning they will experience less intense heat. On its website, NASA says the "technology [will enable] a variety of proposed NASA missions to destinations such as Mars, Venus, Titan as well as return to Earth."

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For the upcoming demonstration test on November 1, LOFTID will inflate as it descends from low-Earth orbit. If all goes to plan, NASA says the technology could be used in future crew landing missions and for sending robotic missions to Mars and returning heavier payloads to Earth.

Those who followed coverage of NASA's Mars Perseverance rover mission will likely remember the mission lander's descent into the red planet's thin atmosphere being described as a heart-stopping "seven minutes of terror". During those critical moments, many of the mission's ground team feared the $2.7 billion rover might not make it down in one piece. A massive aeroshell like the one demonstrated by LOFTID wouldn't eliminate all risks, but it has the potential to make the gut-wrenching descents of valuable cargo a lot less dangerous.

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