NASA is about to land even bigger vehicles on Mars.
After launching aboard the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket’s final liftoff from the West Coast on Wednesday (November 10), an inflatable heat shield technology demonstrator called LOFTID appeared to make a seamless journey to space and back. If so, this mission marks a key moment in NASA’s long journey to eventually bring humans to Mars.
Splashdown from the low Earth orbit flight test of an inflatable decelerator went nose-down, which was exactly as expected. It even inflated in the ocean, about 800 km from Hawaii – an extra step for the engineering team.
“This is one of the most critical technologies we’re establishing right now with this mission, as well as this first successful orbital flight and its recovery,” said Jim Reuter, NASA associate administrator for the Missions Directorate of NASA. space technology, during NASA Television. livestream right after the splashdown.
Related: Next-generation Mars inflatable landing gear will be tested at launch on November 1
After deployment in space, NASA visually confirmed via live video the full inflation of LOFTID at approximately 125 km altitude, marking the start of re-entry. Telemetry was briefly lost as the demonstrator returned to Earth, but all was well in the end.
The inflatable technology splashed down just 8 km from the Kahana II recovery vessel, allowing easy recovery, and LOFTID jettisoned its flight recorder as planned for data collection.
“It’s a great opportunity to get some flight data and see how it actually went,” said Greg Swanson, LOFTID instrumentation manager at NASA Ames Research Center, during the same livestream. “We know it worked well enough to make it great,” he added of the assignment.
The $93 million LOFTID, which launched alongside the Joint Polar Satellite System-2 (JPSS-2), is an expandable aeroshell designed to slow a spacecraft’s entry into the Martian sky and reduce the amount heat created by atmospheric friction. NASA says the technology represents a solution for landing in the ultra-thin Martian atmosphere, which makes landings particularly tricky because spacecraft only encounter a fraction of the drag compared to Earth’s atmosphere.
Read more: Powerful JPSS-2 weather satellite launched with Mars heat shield test on last Atlas V flight from west coast
Parachutes are not enough to send even smaller payloads to Mars; for example, the golf cart-sized Spirit and Opportunity rovers fell to the surface into a set of airbags that cushioned the fall. The larger Curiosity and Perseverance rovers required a rocket-powered sky crane to bring the SUV-sized vehicles to the surface.
The celestial crane probably maxed out bringing to the surface the one-ton masses of each of the two largest rovers, which is why NASA is testing this inflatable hull to land humans and the cargo they need to live. on the Red Planet. The flying saucer shape is designed to slip into a conventional rocket upon launch, but expands and inflates as it arrives at the Red Planet and its atmosphere. (Parachutes would also be used to ensure the payload’s safe arrival on Mars.)
Granted, human landing dates on Mars remain far in the future while NASA remains focused on its Artemis program. Artemis I has just weathered Tropical Storm Nicole which hit the east coast of Florida overnight. It could kick off its uncrewed trip around the moon on November 16, kicking off a series of missions that will include a moon landing on Artemis 3 later in the 2020s.
There is a lot of technology that could be transferred between human lunar missions and excursions to Mars, although LOFTID is an exception because the moon has no appreciable atmosphere. Expeditions to Mars for humans will likely take place at least in the 2040s. In the shorter term, NASA and the European Space Agency plan to launch an uncrewed sample return mission to recover the most promising hidden rocks. of the work of the Perseverance rover on the red planet.
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “Why am I taller (opens in a new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) Where Facebook (opens in a new tab).
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