LOFTID: NASA just tested an inflatable heatshield for planetary exploration in orbit

The heatshield demonstration launched aboard ULA's last Atlas V launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base.
Chris Young
The Atlas V at launch (left) and a render of LOFTID (right).
The Atlas V at launch (left) and a render of LOFTID (right).

1, 2 

NASA just lifted its LOFTID heatshield demonstration to orbit aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. The heatshield was successfully deployed and performed a splashdown in the ocean near Hawaii roughly two hours after launch.

LOFTID was launched alongside the Atlas V rocket's primary payload, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) 2 weather satellite, which was successfully placed in a polar orbit to collect weather data for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The mission marked Atlas V's last liftoff from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California as ULA prepares to launch its next-generation Vulcan rocket for the first time. The rocket took to the skies at 1:49 a.m. PST.

NASA's UFO-like LOFTID flies to orbit

NASA's Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) inflatable heatshield technology will allow future planetary missions to Mars, and possibly other regions of our solar system, to carry a compact, pliable heatshield in a payload compartment that can be unfolded before the mission enters its destination planet's atmosphere.

During NASA's livestream of the event, viewable below, a NASA official explained that the technology used on LOFTID will also have benefits here on Earth. In fact, researchers have used the same heat shielding material to build a prototype heat shelter to help tackle forest fires.

The U.S. space agency provided an update roughly an hour after launch, confirming it had successfully deployed LOFTID into orbit from an altitude of approximately 78 miles (125 km). That meant the heatshield had started its descent toward's reentering Earth's atmosphere.

Roughly half an hour later NASA captured live footage of LOFTID making a splashdown into the ocean near Hawaii. The heatshield was lifted out of the water by a boat and carried to dry land. A backup data recorder aboard LOFTID was also jettisoned shortly before splashdown and was recovered. The U.S. space agency has since shared an image of the heatshield aboard the recovery vessel.

Most Popular
LOFTID: NASA just tested an inflatable heatshield for planetary exploration in orbit
The LOFTID heatshield sitting on the recovery boat.


On its website, NASA says LOFTID was built to withstand atmosphere reentry temperatures in excess of 2900°F (1600°C). The space agency explains that it was "constructed with 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."

The heatshield was designed to greatly improve the safety of atmospheric entries for planetary exploration. Mars's atmosphere, for example, is much thinner than the Earth's making entries particularly challenging — as evidenced by the NASA Mars Perseverance rover mission's "seven minutes of terror" descent. The six-meter-diameter (20 feet) LOFTID aeroshell will essentially act as a massive brake system, creating much more atmospheric drag than traditional, much smaller aeroshells.

NASA's LOFTID mission timeline

NASA shared a detailed timeline of its LOFTID mission on its website. The step-by-step timeline shows how there was a roughly two-minute window between the inflation of LOFTID in space and the separation of the heatshield from the Atlas V Centaur rocket stage.

LOFTID: NASA just tested an inflatable heatshield for planetary exploration in orbit
The LOFTID mission timeline.

A satellite was also able to collect minimal data from orbit, though the main findings of the mission will come from the heatshield itself and the backup data recorder that hitched a ride aboard LOFTID. On its website, NASA said "the LOFTID team will analyze the recorded data and inspect the heat shield to assess how the technology performed," adding that "additional updates will be provided as available."

NASA's primary payload for its mission today, the JPSS-2 satellite, will collect data that will help scientists predict and prepare for extreme weather events including floods, hurricanes, and snowstorms. The secondary, experimental LOFTID payload, meanwhile, will help scientists prepare for future missions to planets with harsh, freezing climates.

This was a live article and it was updated as new information emerged.

message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron