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!
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.
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 NASA.gov/live following the launch.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Make sure to follow us on Tumblr for your regular dose of space!