What is NASA's LOFTID mission and why is it important?
NASA will launch LOFTID (Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator), its latest heat shield technology, onboard the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket on November 10. It will take off from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California alongside the JPSS-2 (Joint Polar Surveyor System-2) weather satellite. The space agency's newest technology will aid in conducting missions to Mars, Venus, and Titan.
Why does this story matter?
- The LOFTID will be the quintessential demonstration of how an inflatable heat shield design can slow down spacecraft during re-entry into Earth's atmosphere.
- If everything goes well, it could support crewed and robotic missions to distant planetary destinations such as Mars.
- Scientists are also planning to bring back payloads from the International Space Station (ISS) if the LOFTID technology proves to be a success.
What is an aeroshell?
Aeroshell is a rigid casing around a spacecraft to protect it during re-entry to the Earth. Generally, it is made up of two parts: a heat shield and a back shell. The former offers protection against extreme conditions in space while the latter carries a parachute and other components to guide the spacecraft during entry, descent, and landing.
The LOFTID aeroshell can withstand temperatures exceeding 1,600°C
LOFTID aeroshell is constructed with a stack of pressurized concentric rings, that render the rigid blunt cone-shaped structure. The inflatable structure maintains the shape against drag forces while the flexible thermal protection system acts as a shield from the heat during re-entry. The rings are made of braided synthetic fibers that are 15 times stronger than steel and can withstand temperatures exceeding 1,600-degree celsius.
It is the largest blunt body aeroshell to date
LOFTID is equipped with a HIAD (Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator), making it larger than conventional aeroshells. As per NASA, the 19.7-feet wide aeroshell will be the "largest blunt body aeroshell to ever go through the atmospheric entry." This re-entry vehicle can revolutionize the way payloads are delivered to planetary destinations with atmospheres such as Mars and Venus.
How will it achieve its objectives?
When a spacecraft enters an atmosphere, it is subjected to several aerodynamic forces, like the drag force. This causes the space vessel to slow down, subsequently converting its kinetic energy into heat. The HIAD technology creates more drag and starts the deceleration process right from the upper atmospheric layers. This in turn confers the ability to land from high altitudes and deliver heavier payloads.
LOFTID is the secondary payload
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's JPSS-2 weather satellite is the primary payload on the ULA Atlas V rocket and not LOFTID. JPSS-2 will be positioned nearly 824km above Earth and will allow scientists to look out for extreme weather conditions. It will cross the equator 14 times a day as it orbits from the North to the South Pole.
It will splash down near Hawaii on re-entry
After the JPSS-2 gets locked in orbit, LOFTID will take up a re-entry trajectory from low-Earth orbit to demonstrate the inflatable heat shield's ability to decelerate. It will splash down around 805km off the coast of Hawaii, in the US.