On Thursday morning, NASA launched a massive inflatable object into space, and then, after bringing it back down from orbit, it landed in the ocean somewhere close to Hawaii.
Although you could imagine it to be something like a bouncy castle from space, the folks in charge of the expedition would like it if you didn’t think of it that way.
The LOFTID project may seem to be nothing more than an entertaining hoax, but in reality, it is a demonstration of an exciting technology that might one day assist NASA in achieving its mission of transporting humans safely to the surface of Mars. The organisation has successfully landed a number of robotic spacecraft on Mars; but, the techniques that are now in use can only handle payloads weighing up to around 1.5 tonnes, which is equivalent to the size of a compact automobile.
This is insufficient for the bigger landers that are required for people and the supplies that they will need to thrive on Mars, which must be able to transport at least 20 tonnes.
When fully inflated, the gadget takes the shape of a saucer and measures twenty feet across. This may be the most appropriate way to describe the apparatus. It is constructed out of many layers of material that are able to withstand being dropped into the sky at speeds of 18,000 miles per hour and temperatures that are close to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
In spite of this, an inflatable heat shield is comparable to a jumping castle in one important respect: when it is deflated, it can be folded up and stored in a compact manner. LOFTID could be contained inside a cylindrical space that was somewhat more than four feet wide and one and a half feet high. There is no feasible way to fit anything with a diameter of 20 feet inside a rocket that is just that broad, which is required for a conventional rigid heat shield.
A bigger surface, such as that of LOFTID, creates a much higher amount of air friction. This means that it functions more effectively as a brake as it cuts through the upper atmosphere, and the increased drag makes it possible to slow down heavier cargoes. For future trips to Mars, an inflatable heat shield would be paired with additional technologies such as parachutes and retrorockets to help guide the lander to a gentle landing on the surface of the planet.
During the countdown to liftoff on an Atlas V rocket at 1:49 a.m. Pacific time on Thursday, the LOFTID crew did not have much to do since they were relatively unoccupied. The LOFTID systems weren’t activated until an hour later, after the weather satellite had already been launched, so that they wouldn’t inadvertently interfere with the primary purpose of the mission, which was to send the satellite into orbit.
Following the successful deployment of the weather satellite into orbit, the second stage of the rocket, to which LOFTID was still connected, performed two short engine firings in order to correctly position LOFTID for its subsequent re-entry into the atmosphere.
According to Dr. Cheatwood, twenty years ago, Steve Hughes, one of the key engineers on LOFTID, reviewed several papers discussing Russian work on inflatable heat shields. These documents were found in Dr. Cheatwood’s possession. He said, “I felt that it was a wonderful idea,” and I agreed with him. “We were sort of the ones pulling everything together between the two of us,” she said.
That resulted in three experiments being conducted ten years ago. These 10-foot-wide inflatable shields were launched on suborbital rockets, and their flight path consisted mostly of ascending vertically before descending again. Because the vehicle entered orbit during the LOFTID test, the re-entry was much quicker, which produced a greater amount of heat. Additionally, the diameter was doubled.
The accomplishments of SpaceX, which successfully recovers the booster stages of its Falcon 9 rockets after each launch, have inspired United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, to consider the possibility of reusing components of its next-generation rocket, the Vulcan, which is scheduled to make its maiden voyage in the following year.
Outpost Space, a young company just getting its feet off the ground, has the ambitious goal of developing an innovative space enterprise that might make use of the inflatable heat shield technology. The price of sending satellites into orbit has decreased significantly in recent years as a result of the proliferation of new rocket businesses. However, the process of bringing anything, such as medication samples or innovative materials created in the near-weightless environment of low-Earth orbit, back to Earth remains constrained and challenging. For the time being, this is something that can only be accomplished by sending payloads to the International Space Station or, maybe, China’s brand new space station.
The team working on the Outpost discovered NASA’s inflatable heat shields and subsequently signed a contract requiring NASA to produce versions that it can make use of. After the payload has been guided safely through the intense heat of re-entry by the inflatable heat shield, a second inflatable system, in the form of a paraglider, will deploy. This will allow the payload to be directed with pinpoint accuracy toward a landing site.
According to Mr. Dunn, the prospective clients for Outpost “can’t afford the space station round or they need to get it up and down quicker.” “What we’ve been able to develop is a system that can fly really short missions that we can get in space and back in a month,” said the spokesperson for the company that developed the system.