LOFTID: NASA Tests Inflatable Heat Shield

LOFTID NASA Mission: For Mars landings and the re-entry of heavy payloads from Earth orbit, NASA needs larger heat shields. LOFTID (Low Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator) is the name of NASA’s latest attempt to test an inflatable heat shield for space probes and spacecraft. The test of the 6-meter LOFTID shield was broadcast live on NASA TV. He was successful and the return pod landed on a parachute in the Pacific Ocean at 1:03 p.m. Central European Time about 800 km from Hawaii.

Similar trials took place in 2009 and 2012, but with shields, just 3 meters in diameter and comparatively low speeds of Mach 5 and Mach 10, resulting in a much smaller heat load. This time, full-speed re-entry from Earth orbit was tested.

LOFTID was launched into orbit aboard the Centaur upper stage of an Atlas V rocket, along with the JPSS-2 weather satellite. However, at the time of publication of this article, NASA has not yet been able to confirm that JPSS-2 has deployed its solar panels, although it is in contact with the satellite. The demonstrator separated only after the upper stage fired its engines again to deliberately de-orbit and crash over the ocean.

LOFTID mission by NASA

Heavy spaceships have reentry problems with LOFTID mission
Inflatable thermal shields are necessary to increase the area over which spacecraft are slowed down in the atmosphere. The larger a spaceship is, the proportionally smaller its surface becomes. As a result, it decelerates less in the upper atmosphere, reaches the lower, dense atmosphere at a higher speed, and then decelerates much more in a much shorter time.

The faster penetration into the dense earth’s atmosphere ensures a significantly higher mechanical and thermal load on the heat protection shield, which has to be built correspondingly thicker and heavier and then threatens to take up too large a part of the total mass. A landing in the thin atmosphere of Mars without additional braking maneuvers by rocket engines can even become impossible if the surface is too small and if the speed is not reduced sufficiently for the use of the parachutes.

One of the planned near-Earth applications of the technology is the reuse of rocket engines. The United Launcher Alliance, which also makes the Atlas V rockets, plans to separate the engines of the first rocket stage of its new Vulcan rocket in flight. They are designed to enter the atmosphere with a thermal shield and land in the sea hanging from a parachute, similar to Rocketlab’s reuse of the Electron rocket. Because of the significantly higher mass of the parachute, however, the ULA wants to do without the helicopter. Read more space exploration articles and discoveries.

Before landing on Mars and the reuse of engines become conceivable, however, the flight data must first be evaluated and practical designs developed.

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