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Comin’ in Hot: Seven Things to Know About our New Heat Shield

Comin’ in Hot: Seven Things to Know About our New Heat Shield

Comin’ in Hot: Seven Things to Know About our New Heat Shield

What goes up, must come down, and from space, without burning up in an atmosphere. That’s why we’re pumped for the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator, or LOFTID. Launching on Nov. 1, 2022, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Joint Polar Orbiting Satellite System-2 (JPSS-2) mission, this technology demonstration marks the next step in advancing an innovative heat shield design that could one day be used to land heavy payloads – including humans – on Mars!

Animated GIF of an animation of mission highlights for the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID). We see the upper stage of the ULA Atlas V rocket reorient and position LOFTID for entry into Earth's atmosphere. The re-entry vehicle spins and separates from the upper stage. The inflated heat shield is scene descending toward Earth and motion lines behind the technology indicate the transmission of data during its flight.ALT

Here are seven things to know about this innovative re-entry system: 

1. LOFTID is the first-ever in-orbit test of this technology. 

Inflatable heat shields, called Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators (HIADs), have been in the works for more than a decade. In 2012, the third of the Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiments (IRVE) launched on a suborbital sounding rocket from the Wallops Flight Facility, demonstrating a 3-meter (10-foot) diameter inflatable heat shield.

Engineers at NASA's Langley Research Center are standing next to an orange stack of inflated test rings atop a stand during the final test of the inflation system in Jan. 2022. The inflation system is one component of the LOFTID re-entry vehicle demonstration.ALT

But the LOFTID re-entry vehicle, at 19.7 feet (6 meters) in diameter, will be the largest blunt body aeroshell to ever go through atmospheric entry. Designed to withstand temperatures as high as 2900°F (1600°C), this first-ever in-orbit test of this technology will prove if it can successfully slow down large payloads – such as crewed spacecraft, robotic explorers, and rocket components – enabling them to survive the heat of re-entry at planetary destinations with an atmosphere.

2. You can find out how this tech works in real-time.  

LOFTID is unique in that all operations will happen within a few hours of launch. After the JPSS-2 satellite safely reaches orbit, the LOFTID vehicle will separate from the upper stage of the Atlas V rocket and begin re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. If all goes as planned, the technology will help the vehicle decelerate from hypersonic (more than 25 times faster than the speed of sound) down to subsonic flight, less than 609 miles per hour for a safe splash down and recovery from the Pacific Ocean. 

While in flight, engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center will receive location data every 20 seconds and onboard sensors and cameras will record more comprehensive data about the technology’s performance. You can get a behind-the-scenes look at Langley’s Flight Mission Support Center where the LOFTID project team will be monitoring the flight test at following the launch.

Graphic of the LOFTID Mission Timeline and Flight Path illustrating the important milestones in the technology demonstration. The background imagery on the left is the launch from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. From the launchpad, the stages of the launch sequence and separation are identified by different icons and timelines starting with the booster separation, and moving through payload spacecraft separation, the aeroshell inflation and the Centaur upper stage orientation and spin. We see a rendering of the heat shield separating at L+70 minutes and LOFTID beginning its descent toward Earth. We see LOFTID's parachute deployed and its splashdown in the Pacific Ocean depicted at the L+125 minute mark.ALT

3. A lemon-sized capsule ejected into the Pacific Ocean will hold key flight data. 

The LOFTID re-entry vehicle will record both sensor and camera data during its flight. The data will include the temperatures and pressures experienced by the heat shield and will illustrate how well the technology performed during the demonstration.

Although the goal is to retrieve the LOFTID re-entry vehicle after it splashes down in the Pacific Ocean, the team wanted a back-up option just in case they can’t recover it. Enter the tiny yellow package called an ejectable data module (EDM) which will also record flight data. The EDM will be released from the spacecraft at an altitude of about 50,000 feet. It will free fall into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii and should land within 10 miles of the spacecraft’s splash down location. A recovery team, that has practiced hide-and-seek of the EDM on land and sea, will use GPS to search an approximately 900-mile area of the Pacific Ocean to find their “lemon.”

Four men are pictured wearing life vests aboard a U.S. Army Landing Craft Utility boat as they conducted a water recovery test of the ejectable data module for the Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID).ALT

4. This heat shield packs a punch. 

Although NASA has historically relied on rigid aeroshells, parachutes, and retro-propulsion (rockets) to decelerate people, vehicles, and hardware during entry, descent, and landing operations, a benefit of inflatable heat shields is that they take up less space in a rocket, allowing more room for other hardware or payloads. LOFTID’s aeroshell has been folded and tightly packed down to 4 by 1.5 feet for launch and stacked in the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket payload fairing.

Close up of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V payload fairing containing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Joint Polar Satellite System-2 (JPSS-2) as it arrived at the vertical integration facility at Space Launch Complex 3 at Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB) in California. We see the hand-painted JPSS-2 mission patch on the top of the fairing, the NOAA and NASA logos beneath, and then LOFTID mission patch underneath.ALT

5. LOFTID is dedicated in honor of one of its innovators.  

LOFTID was developed as a partnership with ULA and is dedicated to the memory of Bernard Kutter, ULA manager of advanced programs, who passed away in August 2020. Kutter was instrumental in advancing the inflatable heat shield design and developing the plan to test the system on an Atlas V rocket. He was an advocate for both space technology and expanding access to space. Kutter’s NASA and ULA counterparts agree that LOFTID is unlikely to have made it to space without his vision and passion.

6. LOFTID is made of tough stuff. 

Synthetic fibers make up the inflatable structure, braided into tubes that are, by weight, 10 times stronger than steel. The tubes are coiled so that they form the shape of a blunt cone when inflated. The thermal protection system that covers the inflatable structure can survive searing entry temperatures up to 2,900 degrees Fahrenheit. Researchers used the same heat-shielding materials to create a fire shelter prototype for firefighters battling forest fires.

7. You can make your own LOFTID Halloween costume! 

Still looking for an out-of-this world Halloween costume? With a few commonly found materials, like orange pool noodles and duct tape, you can create your own LOFTID costume. However, we make no promises of protecting or slowing you down from becoming the life of the party.

In front of the NASA worm logo on the stone wall outside the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters building in Washington, is a woman wearing the make-your-own LOFTID Halloween costume. She wears black long-sleeved shirt, gloves and pants, and has yellow suspenders holding up a stack of orange pool noodles in the shape of rings meant to represent the inflatable heat shield technology.ALT

Follow @NASA_Technology for the latest updates on LOFTID. Don’t miss our live coverage leading up to launch from the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. The NASA Edge JPSS-2 Tower Rollback Show airs live on NASA TV and YouTube on Tuesday, Nov. 1 at 12 a.m. EDT, and NASA TV live launch coverage will begin at 4:45 a.m. EDT. 

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