NASA has launched a huge flying saucer-like inflatable heat shield into space this morning that could one day help land humans safely on Mars.
LOFTID, an inflatable “aeroshell” about 20 feet in diameter, was launched from a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in California on Thursday at 04:49 ET (09:49 GMT).
The launch was set to take place at 04:25 ET (09:25 GMT); But a “valve problem” forced the launch window to be extended by just over half an hour.
LOFTID now travels to low Earth orbit – less than 1,200 miles from our planet’s surface – before blowing up and then descending to Earth.
It will deploy a parachute to allow a gentle splash in the Pacific Ocean east of Hawaii before being recovered by an offshore vessel called the Kahana II in about two days.
NASA hopes the test will show how the heat shield can act as a giant brake to slow down a future spacecraft as it enters the Martian atmosphere.
If humans are to one day land safely on Mars, engineers will need to invent a spacecraft that can slow down enough to survive atmospheric entry. NASA may have a solution to the problem in the form of a large flying saucer-like inflatable heat shield (pictured) called LOFTID, which was launched into low Earth orbit on Thursday morning
LOFTID, an inflatable “aeroshell” about 20 feet in diameter, launched from a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in California on Thursday at 04:49 ET (09:49 GMT)
LOFTID now travels to low Earth orbit – less than 1,200 miles from our planet’s surface – before blowing up and then descending back to Earth
LOFTID prepares for launch from a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, USA
What is LOFTID?
The Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) is an inflatable “aeroshell” approximately 20 feet in diameter.
The heat shield launched into space aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Nov. 10, along with a pole-orbiting JPSS-2 weather satellite.
When JPSS-2 reaches orbit, the heat shield will be inflated and put on a low-orbit re-entry trajectory to test its ability to slow down and survive re-entry.
The launch was originally scheduled for November 1 but was delayed due to the need to replace a battery on board the Centaur launch vehicle’s upper stage.
Centaur will release LOFTID about 75 minutes after Thursday’s liftoff, while a recovery team will leave port before launching aboard Kahana II and take two days to reach the splashdown site east of Honolulu.
LOFTID, which stands for Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator, launched alongside a pole-orbiting JPSS-2 weather satellite, NASA said.
After JPSS-2 reaches orbit, LOFTID will be put on a reentry trajectory from low Earth orbit to demonstrate the inflatable aeroshell or heat shield’s ability to slow down and survive reentry.
LOFTID is a deceleration test – meaning its giant aeroshell acts as a giant brake as it crosses the Martian atmosphere,
When a spacecraft enters an atmosphere, aerodynamic drag helps to slow it down – and is therefore an effective method of slowing a spacecraft before it lands.
However, the atmosphere on Mars is much less dense than Earth’s and presents an extreme challenge for aerodynamic deceleration.
The Red Planet’s atmosphere is thick enough to provide some drag, but too thin to slow the spacecraft down as quickly as it would in Earth’s atmosphere.
So the LOFTID’s large deployable aeroshell creates more drag than other designs and begins to slow in the upper atmosphere, causing it to decelerate faster, at higher altitude.
The launch was set to take place at 04:25 ET (09:25 GMT); But a “valve problem” forced the launch window to be extended by just over half an hour
Once JPSS-2 reaches orbit, the heat shield will be inflated and put on a low-orbit re-entry trajectory to test its ability to slow down and survive re-entry
It will travel to low Earth orbit – less than 1,200 miles from our planet’s surface – before blowing up and then descending back to Earth (artist’s impression)
It looks like a flying saucer, but scientists hope the unusual spacecraft will help humans land on Mars for the first time
When it comes to destinations with atmospheres—including Mars, Venus, Titan, and Earth—one of the most important challenges NASA faces is how to deliver heavy payloads.
As it stands, current rigid aeroshells are limited by the size of a rocket’s envelope – its streamlined protective envelope.
For example, you may remember the “seven minutes of terror” when NASA’s Perseverance rover used a parachute to descend to the surface of Mars last year.
Radio signals sent from NASA and vice versa take 10 minutes for either party to make contact, so after the ground team told Perseverance to descend, the rover took over and made the epic journey all by itself.
The heat shield will be launched into space aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, along with a pole-orbiting JPSS-2 weather satellite
If the test is a success, it could prove crucial in helping NASA achieve its ambitious goal of launching humans to the Red Planet within the next decade
The spacecraft shot through Mars’ atmosphere moving at 12,000 miles per hour, but then had to slow to zero miles per hour seven minutes later to land safely on the surface.
While Perseverance survived the descent unscathed with a basic parachute, the landing process is more difficult for larger payloads, such as rockets with people on board.
“One answer is an inflatable aeroshell that can be used at a scale much larger than the envelope,” says NASA.
“This technology enables a variety of proposed NASA missions to destinations such as Mars, Venus, Titan as well as returning to Earth.”
As part of the Artemis program – the successor to the Apollo program of the 1960s and 1970s – NASA aims to get humans to the moon once more this decade, before putting humans on Mars for the first time in the 2030s.
The first stage of the Artemis program, an unmanned lunar orbiter mission (called Artemis I), will launch next week after repeated delays.
NASA plans to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s after the first landing on the moon
Mars has become the next giant step for mankind’s space exploration.
But before humans reach the Red Planet, the astronauts will take a series of small steps by returning to the moon for a year-long mission.
Details of a lunar orbit mission have been revealed as part of a timeline of events leading to missions to Mars in the 2030s.
Nasa has outlined its four-step plan (pictured) which it hopes will one day allow humans to visit Mars at the Humans to Mars Summit held in Washington DC yesterday. This will mean several missions to the moon over the coming decades
In May 2017, Greg Williams, deputy assistant administrator for policy and plans at Nasa, outlined the space agency’s four-step plan that it hopes will one day allow humans to visit Mars, as well as its expected timeframe.
Phase one and two will involve multiple trips into lunar space, to allow construction of a habitat that will provide a staging area for the trip.
The final piece of hardware delivered would be the Deep Space Transport vehicle itself which would later be used to transport a crew to Mars.
And a year-long simulation of life on Mars will be carried out in 2027.
Phases three and four will begin after 2030 and will involve sustained crewed expeditions to the Mars system and the Martian surface.
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