NASA engineers build an ingenious heat shield that inflates in space

NASA engineers build an ingenious heat shield that inflates in space

Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator technology is a series of inflatable rings stacked on top of each other.
GIF: NASA/Gizmodo

In preparation for future missions to Mars, NASA is developing a new method to shield spacecraft in fiery hell from atmospheric entry, and it does so using a series of what appear to be glorified pool floats.

We have a lot to worry about when we move through space. Of human hair grounding launches at hazardous space waste, 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 reimagine the way spacecraft are shielded from the heat generated upon entry into the atmosphere, in which the resulting friction can produce temperatures reaching 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

According to a NASA Press releaseHIAD has been in development for years, but its next application will be in the Low Flight test in Earth orbit 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 FTPS resistance test

LOFTID should be launched in November aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket next NOAA Joint Polar Satellite System-2, for a true test of its ability to survive atmospheric re-entry. After separation of the NOAA payload from the Atlas V upper stage, LOFTID will inflate and re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere with the goal of seeing how well the design does in slowing down and shielding sensitive payloads, like spacecraft with crew and robotic equipment, from the heat of the new school year.

During suborbital testing, the system arrived at “around 5,600 miles per hour or 2.5 kilometers per second, which is hard enough,” Steve Hughes said in a NASA press release. Hughes is responsible for the LOFTID aeroshell at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. “But with LOFTID, we’ll get to almost 18,000 miles per hour, or 8 kilometers per second. That’s about three times faster, but it means nine times more energy.

Section showing the different elements that make up LOFTID.

Section showing the different elements that make up LOFTID.
Chart: Nasa

As NASA points out, the LOFTID system can include a variety of instruments and be scaled to different sizes based on scope of the mission. In the long term, however, NASA specifically identifies its interest in how this technology could help protect future crewed missions to Mars.

After: Remember Company: The test shuttle that never flew in space

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