Inflatable Heat Shield Could Deliver Heavy Payloads to Worlds With a Thick Atmosphere

Universe Today | 6/18/2019 | Staff
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One of the greater challenges of sending payloads to Mars is having to contend with the planet’s atmosphere. While incredibly thin compared to Earth’s (with roughly half of 1% of Earth’s air pressure), the resulting air friction is still an issue for spacecraft looking to land there. And looking to the future, NASA hopes to be able to land heavier payloads on Mars as well as other planets – some of which may have atmospheres as dense as Earth.

A possible solution to this is the use of inflatable aeroshells (aka. heat shields), which offer numerous advantages over rigid ones. To develop this technology, NASA and United Launch Alliance (ULA) have partnered to develop an inflatable heat shield known as the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID). By 2022, they hope to send this cutting-edge prototype to low-Earth orbit (LEO), where it will be tested.

Spacecraft - Atmosphere - Forces - Drag - Spacecraft

When a spacecraft enters an atmosphere, aerodynamic forces begin exerting drag upon it. This helps to slow the spacecraft down, converting its kinetic energy into heat. Naturally, this heat can become very intense, posing a threat to the spacecraft and any crew it may have aboard. Hence why payloads and crewed missions are equipped with heat shields to protect them during atmospheric entry.

Since its inception in 1958, NASA has relied heavily on retro-rocket propulsion and rigid heat shields to decelerate spacecraft during orbital entry, descent, and landing (EDL) operations. Unfortunately, these systems come with their share of drawbacks, not the least of which is mass and the need for propellant. At the same time, scalability is a bit of an issue since larger payloads require a larger aeroshell, which means even more mass.

Heat - Shields - Technology - NASA - Space

This is where inflatable heat shields are especially useful. Using this technology, NASA and other space agencies would be able to use...
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