In preparation for future missions to Mars, NASA is developing a new method for shielding spacecraft from the fiery inferno of atmospheric entry, and it’s doing so by using a series of what appear to be glorified pool floaties.
We have a lot to worry about as we traverse through space. From human hair grounding launches to dangerous space garbage, there’s a lot to consider, including the thorny task of entering a planet’s atmosphere. NASA’s Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD) project seeks to reinvent the way that spacecraft are protected from the heat generated during atmospheric entry, in which the resulting friction can produce temperatures reaching 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
According to a NASA press release, HIAD has been in development for years, but its next application will be in the Low Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator, or LOFTID. LOFTID looks like a series of inner tubes of decreasing diameter stacked on top of each other to form a cone, which can be packed into a small package and inflated when needed. The outermost layer of HIAD is made of ceramic fiber, which is woven together to create a fabric.
LOFTID is expected to launch in November aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, alongside NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System-2, for a true test of its ability to survive atmospheric re-entry. After the NOAA payload separates from the Atlas V upper stage, LOFTID will inflate and reenter Earth’s atmosphere in a bid to see how successful the design is at slowing down and protecting sensitive payloads, like crewed spacecraft and robotic equipment, from the heat of reentry.
During suborbital tests, the system came in at “roughly 5,600 miles per hour or 2.5 kilometers per second, which is already difficult,” said Steve Hughes in a NASA press release. Hughes is a LOFTID aeroshell lead at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. “But with LOFTID, we’ll be coming in at nearly 18,000 miles per hour, or 8 kilometers per second. That is about three times as fast, but that means nine times more energy.”
As NASA points out, the LOFTID system can include a variety of instruments and be scaled to different sizes depending on the scope of the mission. Long term, however, NASA specifically identifies its interest in how this technology could help protect future crewed missions to Mars.