How this NASA’s Inflatable Heat Shield Will Enable Future Large-Scale Missions to Mars, Venus and Titan Starting with LOFTID Mission

Unlike sending robotic missions to another planet like Mars, NASA is working towards sending astronauts and their cargo to the red planet. The American space agency has never attempted to reach this milestone in the past. Hence, NASA needs to think differently for the success of these future large-scale missions. The agency is currently working on technologies that will guarantee the safe landing of its large payloads on the hostile environment of Mars and beyond.

NASA’s Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) mission is a newly planned space mission to test a new inflatable heat shield in preparation for future large-scale missions to Mars, Venus, and Titan and re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. For years, space agencies have used Heat shields to protect spacecraft from burning out during atmospheric entry. This is because temperatures in this region can be as hot as half of the temperatures of the Sun’s surface. But NASA is looking at upgrading the heat shielding technology starting with its LOFTID mission.

How NASA is Working to the Success of LOFTID Inflatable Heat Shield Mission

Image Credit: NASA

NASA’s LOFTID will be designed using an inflatable heat shield which will be deployed in space to slow down the speed of a spacecraft and protect it during atmospheric entry. This technology will be designed to occupy less space than traditional rigid heat shields used on spacecraft currently. Since it will take less space, it will create extra space for NASA to accommodate large cargo during future missions to the Moon and Mars. The American space agency is making the inflatable heat shield with applicable features to both crewed missions to deep space and uncrewed missions to Mars, Venus, and Titan.

Once the testing is completed, NASA will certainly deploy this technology on low-Earth orbit spacecraft reentry to Earth including recovering rocket assets and the potential of safely returning a large amount of mass back from the International Space Station. NASA is partnering with the United Launch Alliance to launch the LOFTID mission aboard an Atlas V rocket alongside NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System 2 (JPSS-2).

The launch is planned to commence in November 2022 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The LOFTID heat shield will be made to be only about 4 feet in diameter upon launch. However, after deploying it in space, it will spread out and reach a diameter of 20 feet in space. It will protect the spacecraft during atmospheric re-entry and is scheduled to splash down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii. Upon launch, officials working at NASA’s Langley Research Center and other NASA officials will proceed to manage the LOFTID mission.

What is the LOFTID made of?

NASA’s Ames Research Center based in California’s Silicon Valley has been working on the development of heat shield technologies for future space missions. NASA’s experts working at this location have contributed immensely to the LOFTID’s success including the areas of instrumentation, recovery light system, fabrication, and testing of the aeroshell.

LOFTID Instrumentation

Most test flight missions basically help space agencies to figure out the best ways to improve technology performance during future missions. Hence, NASA’s experts working at Ames focus on building the LOFTID with instruments that can withstand extreme environments in space. The engineers equipped the vehicle with sophisticated sensors that can measure heat energy transfer, detect pressure, pins that measure forces, a radiometer, about 100 thermocouples to measure temperature, and an up-look camera to observe the rocket separation and parachute deployment.

These instruments will give NASA scientists a wide range of data to will analyze the performance of LOFTID while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. To ensure that they use the best sensors, Ames Sensors and Thermal Protection System (TPS) Advanced Research (STAR) Laboratories conducted several testing on the total heat flux gauges and radiometers.

They measured energy transfer and radiation before using the information obtained to improve calibration techniques. NASA Langley Center provided the Vehicles with GPS systems and inflation system sensors while Marshall Space Flight Center built the Infrared and visible camera pods. Armstrong Flight Research Center worked on the experimental fiber optic temperature sensors. The contributions made by different NASA centers on LOFTID’s instrumentation will surely guarantee the success of the mission.

Recovery Light System

Since the LOFTID’s inflatable heat shield will splash down into the Pacific oceans, a recovery light system is required to enable NASA safely recover it under the cover of darkness. Ames is working on the recovery light system to make the vehicle visible and enable the recovery team to do their job successfully. As the vehicle descends, the system will automatically activate the lights on its parachutes. With these arrays of lights, the vehicle can be seen and monitored from afar.

Aeroshell Fabrication and Testing

The LOFTID Aeroshell is made to be about 20 feet in diameter upon deployment in space. This makes it the largest blunt-body vehicle to ever fly into space and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. NASA officials working at Langley Center have been developing flexible TPS for the past 15 years. Based on some meeting some requirements, these officials decided to use the Flexible TPS on LOFTID.

“Building any new technology is an iterative process, and testing is a key part of iteration,” NASA wrote in a statement. “Ames provided developmental testing that helped inform the design of LOFTID’s unique inflatable structure. Once the flight vehicle was created, Ames helped verify it was safe to launch and provide the data analysis needed to prove it can withstand atmospheric entry. In addition, Ames provided oversight during the manufacturing and integration process of the inflatable structure.”

After the demonstration of the LOFTID mission on November 2022, NASA will begin to work towards using the technology for future deep space missions to Mars, Venus, and Titan. This project is dedicated to the memory of Bernard Kutter, who served as the manager of advanced programs at ULA before passing away in August 2020. While working as the manager, Kutter has always advocated for technologies like the LOFTID to enable NASA to reduce the cost of space exploration. Even though this project is coming two years after his demise, Kutter’s long-term vision is about to become a reality. The LOFTID mission is managed and funded via NASA’s Technology Demonstration Missions program. This is part of the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

Conclusion

NASA’s LOFTID mission will surely change the way we explore space and send larger cargos to low earth orbit, and to deep space. The outcome of the November 2022 launch will determine the future of this technology in deep space exploration. What do you think about this project?

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