The performance of the LOFTID aeroshell as it descends through Earth’s atmosphere will be closely watched by mission planners.
Early next week, a piece of technology that might aid in landing large pieces of equipment on Mars will be tested in space.
The Joint Polar Surveyor System-2 (JPSS-2) weather satellite is set to launch early Tuesday morning from California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base using an Atlas V rocket from the United Launch Alliance (ULA) (Nov. 1).
The Atlas V is carrying a variety of payloads in addition to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s JPSS-2 satellite, which will assist researchers in enhancing weather forecasts and tracking the effects of climate change, among other responsibilities. The Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) vehicle, a technology demonstration with potential uses beyond our planet, will also launch on Tuesday.
A new type of landing gear
Engineers are considering using the extensible aeroshell known as LOFTID as a heat shield for expeditions to the Red Planet. Landing on Mars is challenging due to the low atmosphere; incoming spacecraft experience some drag, but not nearly as much as they do in the atmosphere of Earth.
Therefore, more is required than parachutes to securely land cargoes on Mars. For instance, NASA’s golf-cart-sized Spirit and Opportunity rovers used springy air bags to soften their falls. To land its Curiosity and Perseverance rovers, which are each about the size of an SUV and weigh around a tonne (here on Earth, at least; they are lighter on Mars, where the surface gravity is just 40% as strong as our planet’s), the agency devised a rocket-powered sky crane.
However, those missions pretty almost reached the sky crane’s weight capacity. According to NASA officials, new entry, descent, and landing technology will be required to successfully land super-heavy cargo on Mars, such as dwelling modules for a future research station.
One such solution is expandable aeroshells. These cylindrical constructions resemble saucers and are made to shrink compactly enough to be launched on conventional rockets. When they reach their planetary target, however, they expand significantly, possibly producing enough air drag to assist in the landing of objects far more massive than Perseverance or Curiosity. (Decelerators are not the only solution; parachutes would still be included in the strategy.)
Although the $93 million LOFTID project was only started five years ago, the fundamental concept dates back far more.
At a press briefing earlier this month, Joe Del Corso, project manager for LOFTID at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, said: “The original concept actually stems from the ’50s and ’60s.” Unfortunately, at that time, they lacked the necessary tools and infrastructure, and their level of development prevented them from realising their potential.
Expandable aeroshells have been tested on the ground and in the atmosphere by NASA, including a 2015 trial that transported one aboard a massive balloon far above Hawaii. (That test, however, did not go as planned; during the fall, the supersonic parachute attached to the aeroshell tore apart.)
But LOFTID will take the testing to a new level.
The largest-scale test item to date, according to Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, it is the first low Earth orbit flight test of this technology.
The flight plan
The sack that contains LOFTID measures 7.4 feet tall and 4.3 feet wide (2.3 by 1.3 meters). On the Centaur upper stage of the Atlas V, it is located beneath JPSS-2.
About 28 minutes after launch on Tuesday, the Centaur will insert JPSS-2 into a sun-synchronous polar orbit before rerouting to a re-entry path. The Centaur will discharge LOFTID, which will return to Earth, after 75 minutes of flight.
By this time, the aeroshell will have extended to its complete width of 19.7 feet (6 metres). The greatest temperature experienced by LOFTID when it passes through our atmosphere will be roughly 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit (1,400 degrees Celsius), before it releases its parachute and softly splashes down in the Pacific Ocean close to the Hawaiian Islands.
The data gathered by LOFTID during the descent will be carefully examined by mission team members who will use it to complete their understanding of the potential and capabilities of expandable aeroshells. According to Kortes, the possibility is exciting and is not just applicable to trips to the Red Planet.
Since of Titan’s thick atmosphere, she added, “the largest moon of Saturn, Titan, becomes a possibility because this technology can ultimately permit new trips for us to Mars [and] Venus.” Additionally, it can be utilised for payload returns to Earth.
That return-to-Earth perspective is particularly appealing to ULA. In an unfunded Space Act Agreement, the launch corporation is collaborating with NASA on LOFTID in order to evaluate the potential use of decelerators on missions of its upcoming Vulcan Centaur rocket, which will replace the Atlas V.
Expandable aeroshells like LOFTID could be an excellent solution to safely return this priceless hardware to Earth. ULA intends to reuse the Blue Origin BE-4 engines that power the first stage of the Vulcan Centaur.
James Cusin, an operations engineer in ULA’s Advanced Programs division, stated at a statement that “all of the data we obtain out of the LOFTID mission will be used to help correlate models and gain a much better picture of what the Vulcan reuse system would confront” (opens in new tab).