NASA recovers inflatable heat shield in Pacific Ocean after orbital test

The LOFTID heat shield is lifted out of the water onto the deck of the recovery vessel.

The LOFTID heat shield after its ocean recovery.
Image: Nasa

After launching a inflatable heat shield experience in space on Thursday, NASA has now recovered the device after it landed in the Pacific Ocean. The space agency is investigating whether this type of heat shield can protect valuable payloads from the high temperatures of atmospheric re-entry.

NASA’s Low Earth Orbit Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) flight test lifted off aboard an Atlas 5 rocket at 4:49 a.m. ET Thursday from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The flying saucer may not look like much, but this $93 million device could play a crucial role in sending future missions to Mars, Venus and Titan.

LOFTID separated from the rocket about 75 minutes after liftoff. The rocket’s upper stage performed two burns to place the heat shield on a re-entry course, and LOFTID inflated as it began its journey to Earth. The fully inflated device was about 125 kilometers above the surface when it began re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, NASA reports in blog updates today.

LOFTID fully inflated at the start of the new school year.

LOFTID fully inflated at the start of the new school year.
Image: Nasa

LOFTID is made from ceramic fibers that are woven together to create a fabric. This fabric is designed to withstand temperatures approaching 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it plunges through the atmosphere at 18,000 miles per hour. The heat shield is intended to slow heavier payloads as they descend to Earth or the surfaces of other planets like Mars and Venus, and land them safely using a parachute.

The heat shield’s parachute deployed about two hours after liftoff, and LOFTID splashed down in the Pacific Ocean near the coast of Hawaii, where a recovery boat was sent to find it. The crew on board the Kahana-II vessel fished LOFTID out of the ocean and placed it on deck, according to NASA.

LOFTID provided limited data during the demonstration, which is why it was crucial to retrieve the shield so that NASA engineers can take a look at the data collected throughout its descent. The results of the demonstration will be available within a few days, NASA says.

It’s not yet clear if LOFTID performed as expected when it re-entered. The heat shield crashed into the ocean “a few minutes later than originally planned based on the planned mission schedule”, NASA wrote in a short update. LOFTID should have slowed from a maximum speed of Mach 29 to Mach 0.7 during its reentry, but the data has yet to confirm its speed.

If the experiment is successful, it could one day aid in crewed missions to Mars, as well as heavier payload missions to Venus or Saturn’s moon Titan.

“The LOFTID test represents a major step toward flight readiness for large-area heat shields,” Sadaf Sobhani, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, said in an emailed statement. “This is important because future exploration missions, such as landing humans on Mars, will require much larger heat shields than can fit in a rocket payload, so deployable technologies will enable such missions. otherwise inaccessible.”

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