On Thursday morning, NASA sent a big, inflatable device into space. It came back to Earth and landed in the ocean near Hawaii. The people in charge of the mission would rather you didn’t think of it as a bouncy castle from space.
Neil Cheatwood, who was in charge of the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator, or LOFTID, said in an interview that the comparison was not accurate.
What Is LOFTID?
LOFTID might sound like a funny trick, but the $93 million project shows an interesting technology that could help NASA reach its goal of getting people safely to the surface of Mars one day. The agency has put a number of robotic spacecraft on Mars, but the current methods only work for payloads that weigh up to 1.5 tonnes, or about the same as a small car.
That isn’t enough for the larger landers that can carry at least 20 tonnes of people and the supplies they will need to live on Mars.
A better way to describe the thing might be as a 20-foot-wide saucer when it’s inflated. It is made of layers of fabric that can withstand falling into the atmosphere at 18,000 miles per hour and temperatures close to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Still, an inflatable heat shield is like a bouncy castle in one important way: it can be folded and packed tightly when it is not inflated. LOFTID could fit in a cylinder that was a little over 4 feet wide and 1.5 feet high. There is no way to fit a rigid heat shield with a diameter of 20 feet into a rocket that is not that wide.
A bigger surface like LOFTID’s creates a lot more air friction. It acts like a better brake as it cuts through the upper atmosphere and the extra drag makes it possible to slow down heavier payloads. For future Mars missions, the inflatable heat shield would be used with other systems like parachutes and retrorockets to help guide the lander to a soft landing.
Dr. Cheatwood said, “Because it’s so heavy and we’re trying to get people to Mars, we’d need a heat shield about 30 feet in diameter.”
NASA Launched And Landed LOFTID
During the countdown to liftoff at 1:49 a.m. Pacific time on Thursday, the LOFTID team didn’t have much to do. So that the main mission, which was to launch a weather satellite, didn’t get messed up, the LOFTID systems weren’t turned on until an hour after the satellite was launched.
When it gets into orbit, the Joint Polar Satellite System-2, which is now called NOAA-21, will measure the energy coming from the Earth through the atmosphere to improve weather predictions.
After the weather satellite was put into orbit, the second stage of the rocket, which still had LOFTID attached, fired its engine twice for a short time to get LOFTID facing the right way for its return to Earth.
Over the next few minutes, compressed nitrogen gas blew up LOFTID’s heat shield, which was made up of a series of nested doughnut-shaped tubes that made the top of the rocket stage look like a mushroom or a parasol. To make LOFTID more stable, the rocket stage began to slowly spin like a top at a rate of three turns per minute. The test craft was then sent on its way through the atmosphere.
A couple of hours after launch, the LOFTID device was floating in the Pacific Ocean about 500 miles from Hawaii. A recovery ship took grainy infrared video of LOFTID coming down with a parachute and then landing in the water.
Greg Swanson, who is in charge of LOFTID’s instruments, said on the NASA TV show that everyone is just happy and relieved. He was on the ship that was going to pull the car out of the water.
The idea of inflatable heat shields has been around for about 50 years, but there were no materials that were strong enough and could handle the heat.
Dr. Cheatwood said that Steve Hughes, one of the main engineers for LOFTID, read about Russian work on inflatable heat shields in papers from 20 years ago. He said, “I thought it was a good idea.” “Between the two of us, we kind of pulled it all together.” Ten years ago, that led to three tests. The 10-foot-wide inflatable shields were sent up on suborbital rockets, which basically went straight up and then fell back down. The LOFTID test doubles the diameter and because the vehicle went into orbit, it came back down much faster, making more heat.
Moments years in the making for the team at @NASA_Langley: See the #LOFTID @NASA_Technology demonstration splash down in the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii. The data from this inflatable heat shield test will help us land more massive missions, and explore farther. pic.twitter.com/PzARsfhC9P
— NASA (@NASA) November 10, 2022
Dr. Cheatwood said that since the test went well, the technology is now ready to be used on missions.
Inflatable heat shields could help land on other planets with atmospheres, like Venus and Titan, Saturn’s biggest moon.
After a test flight early Thursday, the LOFTID inflatable heat shield landed in the ocean near Hawaii.
Dr. Cheatwood said that about a dozen companies in the United States have shown interest in the technology. “And I’m not going out to try to sell it to them,” he said. “They’re getting in touch with me.” The Atlas V rocket that sent LOFTID into space was made by United Launch Alliance.
Inspired by the success of SpaceX, which regularly lands the booster stages of its Falcon 9 rockets, United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin, wants to reuse parts of Vulcan, its next-generation rocket, which will fly for the first time next year. Unlike SpaceX, the company doesn’t want to land the first stage in its entirety.
Instead, the most expensive parts, the engines, would be thrown out of the back of the Vulcan booster. They would then fall back to Earth, slowed first by an inflatable heat shield and then by parachutes. The falling engine part would then be caught by a helicopter and taken to a ship. (Another rocket company, Rocket Lab, is also trying to catch rocket parts while they are in the air.)
A small company called Outpost Space wants to start a new space business that could use technology for inflatable heat shields. In the past few years, a lot of new rocket companies have made it cheaper to send satellites into space. But getting things like drug samples or new materials made in low-Earth orbit, where there is almost no gravity, back to Earth is still hard and limited. At the moment, that can only be done with cargo sent to the International Space Station or, maybe, China’s new space station.
Asked about 100mph winds @NASA talked about. @JimFree "The 74 knots is at 60 feet – we extrapolate up – and we design for that that based on that extrapolation. Higher values were seen and are within our capabilities".
— NASA Watch (@NASAWatch) November 11, 2022
Outpost, on the other hand, thinks that many researchers and businesses would be happy to skip trips to and from a space station and instead take much shorter trips to orbit. Mr. Dunn said that Outpost planned to launch the first test of its system in space next year.
The CEO of the company, Jason Dunn, said, “It’s basically a small platform that lets the payload work and is exposed to the space environment.” “Then it comes back. So it’s almost like a small space station that just happens to come back after your mission.”
The Outpost team found NASA’s inflatable heat shields and signed a contract for NASA to make its own versions. Once the inflatable heat shield has protected the Outpost spacecraft from the heat of re-entry, a second inflatable system, called a paraglider, is used to guide the payload to a specific landing spot.
Mr. Dunn said that the people who might buy Outpost “either can’t pay for the space station round or need to get it up and down faster.” “What we’ve been able to do is build a system that can fly really short missions that can get us to space and back in a month.”
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Jessa Martin is the author of Nogmagazine, A professional in writing by day, and novelist by night, she received her bachelor of arts in film from Howard University and her master of arts in media studies from the New School. A Brooklyn native, she is a lover of naps, cookie dough, and beaches, currently residing in the borough she loves, most likely multitasking.