NASA’s ‘Flawless’ Heat Shield Demonstration Passes Test

NASA’s ‘Flawless’ Heat Shield Demonstration Passes Test

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The low-Earth orbit flight test of an inflatable spacecraft, or LOFTID, is photographed after the atmospheric re-entry test in November 2022. Image credit: NASA/Greg Swanson

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The low-Earth orbit flight test of an inflatable spacecraft, or LOFTID, is photographed after the atmospheric re-entry test in November 2022. Image credit: NASA/Greg Swanson

Just over a year ago, NASA’s flight test article returned from space at speeds of more than 18,000 mph, reaching temperatures of nearly 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit before gently falling into the Pacific Ocean. At that moment, it became the largest blunt object — a type of reentry vehicle that creates a heat-dispersing shock wave — ever to reenter Earth’s atmosphere.

The Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) was launched on November 10, 2022, aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket and successfully demonstrated an inflatable heat shield. Also known as a hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic launcher (HIAD), this technology could allow larger spacecraft to safely descend through the atmospheres of celestial bodies such as Mars, Venus and even Saturn’s moon Titan.

“Large-diameter aeroshells allow us to deliver critical support hardware, and perhaps even crew, to the surface of atmospheric planets,” Trudy Curtis said. “This capability is essential to the nation’s ambition to expand human and robotic exploration across our solar system.” The Technology Demonstration Mission (TDM) program manager within the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

NASA has been developing HIAD technologies for more than a decade, including two smaller-scale suborbital flight tests prior to LOFTID. In addition to this successful technology demonstration, NASA is considering future applications, including partnering with commercial companies to develop technologies for small satellite reentry, air capture, and lunar payloads.

“This was a major event for us, and the short answer is: it was very successful,” said Joe Del Corso, LOFTID Project Manager. “Our evaluation of LOFTID concluded with the promise of what this technology can do to enable deep space exploration.”

Due to the success of the LOFTID technology demonstration, NASA announced under its Tipping Point program that it will collaborate with ULA to develop and deliver the “Next Bigger,” a larger 12-meter aerostructure to recover the company’s Vulcan engines from low Earth. Orbit for reuse.

Successful test in books video summary

The LOFTID team recently conducted a post-flight analysis evaluation of flight testing at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Their rule?

After recovery, the team discovered that LOFTID looked pristine, with minimal damage, meaning its performance was, in del Corso’s words, “flawless.”

Here are some interesting visual highlights from the LOFTID flight test.


Credit: NASA

To reach reentry into the atmosphere, LOFTID had to go through a complex series of events. Del Corso compared it to a Rube Goldberg machine, a complex machine designed to carry out simple tasks through a series of sequential reactions.

A video captured the moment LOFTID deployed HIAD (left), compared to the initial animation developed by NASA Langley’s Advanced Concepts Laboratory (right). Inflation occurs at the bottom of the video as LOFTID flies over the African continent.


Credit: NASA

While flying over the Mediterranean Sea, LOFTID separated from the ULA Centaur’s upper stage. On the left, the LOFTID is seen from the Centaur’s front camera. The composite image on the right is from cameras around the central body of LOFTID, looking forward and outward at the HIAD’s orange inflatable hull. In the center, looking back at the Centaur, the LOFTID can be seen from the rear camera.


Credit: NASA

When LOFTID reentered Earth’s atmosphere and reached nearly 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit, the intense heat caused the gases surrounding it to ionize and form plasma. On the right, images from the central body cameras become very bright in the visible spectrum, while the Earth appears on the infrared cameras as the spacecraft rotates.

The camera captured footage of the plasma rapidly changing colors from orange to purple. Why does the color change? “We are still investigating exactly what causes this,” said John DeNono, LOFTID’s chief engineer. The animation on the left shows the artist’s concept of what the front side might look like.


Credit: NASA

This video, captured by NASA Langley’s Scientifically Calibrated In-Flight Imagery Team, shows LOFTID during peak deceleration as the plasma recedes. On the left, the LOFTID bar stretches across the night sky over the Pacific Ocean. On the right, the purple glow on the back of the LOFTID.

In the second part of the video, the left pans to one of the cameras looking at the back of the atmosphere, with the plasma receding at its edge.


Credit: NASA

After slowing from more than 18,000 mph to less than 80 mph, LOFTID deployed its parachutes.

From an infrared camera aboard the rescue ship, this video shows the parachute deploying and landing above the horizon. An animation of the preflight is provided on the right for comparison.


Credit: NASA

The LOFTID fell into the Pacific Ocean several hundred miles off the east coast of Hawaii and only about eight miles from the bow of the rescue ship, exactly as designed. A crew got into a small boat and retrieved the LOFTID and hoisted it onto the salvage vessel.

“The LOFTID mission was important because it demonstrated that the cutting-edge HIAD design works successfully at the appropriate scale and in the appropriate environment,” said Tawnya Lovinghouse, director of the TDM Program Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

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