Human WorldSpaceSpaceflight

NASA’s new heat shield passes its test

Round heat shield poised high above Earth.
Screen shot from livestream of NASA heat shield test, moments before re-entry, via NASA.

Successful test for NASA’s new heat shield

Delayed by a dying battery, the joint LOFTID-JPSS-2 mission finally rocketed to orbit early Thursday (November 10, 2022). The goal was to test NASA’s new UFO-shaped heat shield, and, the agency reported, the test did end with a safe splashdown:

Team members successfully retrieved the LOFTID heat shield from the Pacific Ocean on Thursday morning [November 11]. With the heat shield on board, the recovery vessel will next head to retrieve LOFTID’s ejectable data module, which contains a backup of the demonstration data that is also stored on the heat shield.

They also later recovered the lemon-shaped secondary data module.

During the test, the disk-shaped heat shield slowed from a tremendous Mach 28 (21,483 mph/ 34,574 kph) to Mach 0.7 (537 mph/ 864 kph) before its parachutes deployed over the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.

The weather satellite that was the primary mission payload also reached orbit, but not without a minor problem. Like the S.S. Sally Ride – a Cygnus cargo ship bound for the ISS that failed to deploy one of its solar arrays earlier this week – the JPSS-2 satellite’s solar panels took some coaxing before they extended themselves fully.

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New heat shield: Round object with a brown structure inside and an inflatable black area around it.
A team member works on the underside of an inflatable aeroshell, a heat shield designed to protect re-entering spacecraft. NASA and United Launch Alliance tested the new heat shield in November 2022. They say they can use it to move people and equipment to Mars and other worlds with atmospheres. Image via NASA/ Greg Swanson.

Not a UFO. A giant inflatable donut in space!

The new UFO-shaped inflatable heat shield design from NASA and United Launch Alliance might be the key to safely landing the huge interplanetary spaceships humanity will need one day, if we are going to colonize Mars. This new heat shield looks like a flying saucer, straight out of a 1950s sci-fi thriller.

The new shield – called the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD) – has been in the works for several years. It consists of a set of super strong balloons, built to withstand the extreme heat of an atmospheric re-entry. When lashed together, the structure looks a whole lot like a classic saucer-shaped UFO. NASA described it like this:

The HIAD design consists of an inflatable structure that maintains its shape against the drag forces, and a protective flexible thermal protection system that withstands the heat of reentry. The inflatable structure is constructed with a stack of pressurized concentric rings, or tori, that are strapped together to form an exceptionally strong blunt cone-shaped structure.

LOFTID (the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator) was the name for the test mission. It flew to space aboard a ULA Atlas V 401 rocket, launching from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on November 10, 2022.

New heat shield ballooned into a saucer

The test mission hitched a ride with a NOAA weather satellite. Once they deployed the main payload to orbit, the heat shield ballooned to its full 6-meter (19.7 foot) diameter and launched a beacon to transmit test telemetry.

The UFO-like saucer then fell to Earth on a spin-stabilized path called a ballistic trajectory. It splashed down off the coast of Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean, ejecting its data recorder before hitting the water.

Conquering the red planet

Space engineers believe that they’ll need an enormous heat shield like HIAD when humanity begins making its way to Mars and beyond … not just to visit, but to stay. NASA said:

Since HIAD technology is larger than traditional aeroshells, it creates more drag and starts the deceleration process in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, allowing not only heavier payloads, but also landing at higher altitudes.

The key there is the word heavier. A heat shield like HIAD will allow, for example, large satellites now sitting dead in Earth-orbit to return intact to Earth for refurbishment and recycling. And the powerful heat shield will also make possible for big heavy cargo ships to land on Mars, carrying the masses of equipment humanity will need to face the rigors of the red planet. NASA said:

The atmosphere of Mars is much less dense than that of Earth and provides an extreme challenge for aerodynamic deceleration. The atmosphere is thick enough to provide some drag, but too thin to decelerate the spacecraft as quickly as it would in Earth’s atmosphere.

HIAD bridges that gap, providing better braking than conventional shields over a much larger area.

It’ll be useful for both robotic and manned missions, NASA said.

Bottom line: NASA and the United Launch Alliance successfully tested an innovative inflatable heat shield design.

November 10, 2022
Human World

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