Technology that could help humanity land heavy hardware on Mars will be tested in space early next week.
A United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V the rocket is scheduled to launch the Joint Polar Surveyor System-2 (JPSS-2) weather satellite from California’s Vandenberg Space Force Base early Tuesday morning (November 1).
JPSS-2 — a US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration spacecraft that will help scientists improve weather forecasting and monitor the effects of climate changeamong other tasks — is not the only payload aboard the Atlas V. Tuesday also sees the flight test of the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) craft, a technology demonstrator whose applications may extend beyond our home planet.
Related: Powerful new Earth-monitoring satellite JPSS-2 to study weather ‘butterfly effect’
A new type of landing gear
LOFTID is an expandable aeroshell, a type of heat shield that engineers are looking for on missions to the Red Planet. The thin one Martian atmosphere makes it difficult to land there; incoming spacecraft encounter some drag, but not nearly as much as they feel in Earth’s air.
So it takes more than parachutes to bring payloads down safely March. NASA’s Spirit and golf cart sized Ability Rovers, for example, also used rebound airbags that cushioned their falls. And the agency developed one rocket powered sky crane to land his Curiosity and Endurance rovers, both of which are about the size of an SUV and weigh about 1 ton (here on Earth anyway, they’re lighter on Mars, where gravity on the surface is only 40% as strong as our planet’s).
However, those missions pretty much maxed out the weight limits for the sky crane. New entry, descent and landing technologies will be needed to get superheavy payloads — habitat modules for a future research base, for example — safely down on Mars, NASA officials have stressed.
Expandable aeroshells are a possible solution. These saucer-like structures are designed to be compressed tightly enough to launch aboard conventional rockets. However, they inflate significantly upon arrival at their planetary destination, which can provide enough drag to assist land objects much more massive than Perseverance or Curiosity. (Retarders aren’t the whole answer, parachutes would still be part of the plan as well.)
The $93 million LOFTID project began just five years ago, but the basic idea goes way back.
“The original concept actually comes from the ’50s and ’60s,” said Joe Del Corso, LOFTID project manager at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, during a press conference earlier this month. “Unfortunately, at that time they didn’t have the materials or the structures, they weren’t advanced enough to actually realize the capabilities.”
NASA has conducted ground and atmospheric tests of expandable aeroshells, including a 2015 attempt that carried one high into the skies above Hawaii aboard a giant balloon. (However, that test did not go as planned; the supersonic parachute attached to the aeroshell torn apart during the descent.)
But LOFTID will take testing to a new level.
“It’s the first low-Earth orbit flight test of this technology, and the largest test item to date,” Trudy Kortes, director of technology demonstrations at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, said during the press conference.
Related: To land safely on Mars, keep straight and fly right
LOFTID packs tightly into a case that is 7.4 feet tall and 4.3 feet wide (2.3 x 1.3 meters). It sits below JPSS-2 on the Atlas V’s Centaur upper stage.
Centaur will deploy JPSS-2 into a sun-synchronous polar orbit about 28 minutes after liftoff on Tuesday, then maneuver into a reentry orbit. Seventy-five minutes into the flight, the centaur will release LOFTID, which goes back down to The earth.
The Aeroshell will have expanded to its full width of 19.7 feet (6 m) at this point. LOFTID will penetrate our atmosphere and experience maximum temperatures around 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit (1,400 degrees Celsius) before deploying parachutes and splashing gently into the Pacific Ocean near the Hawaiian Islands.
Mission team members will look at the data LOFTID collects on the way down, and use it to supplement their understanding of expandable aeroshells’ capabilities and potential. That potential is exciting, and it’s not limited to Red Planet missions, Kortes said.
“This technology could ultimately enable new missions for us to Mars [and] Venus; even Saturn’s largest moon, Titaniumbecomes a possibility because of the dense atmosphere there,” she said. “And it can be used to return the payload to Earth as well.”
ULA is particularly interested in the return-to-Earth angle. The launch company is working with NASA on LOFTID, under an unfunded Space Act agreement, as it looks to evaluate the possible use of decelerators on its future mission Vulcan Centaur rocketthe successor to the Atlas V.
ULA wants to reuse Blue Origin BE-4 engines powering Vulcan Centaur’s first stage and expandable aeroshells like LOFTID could be a good way to get this precious hardware safely back to Earth.
“All the data we get out of the LOFTID mission will be used to help correlate models and get a much better understanding of what the Vulcan re-entry system will face,” James Cusin, an operations engineer in ULA’s Advanced Programs division, said in a statement (opens in new tab).
Mike Wall is the author of “Out there (opens in new tab)” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).
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