In just six days, NASA has taken two huge steps toward putting shoes on Mars.
The agency’s Artemis 1 mission launched Wednesday morning (November 16), sending the uncrewed Orion capsule toward the Moon atop a massive Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.
NASA is counting on the SLS and Orion to help the agency establish a lunar base by the end of 2020 — a major priority for the Artemis program. And if all goes according to plan, the two rovers will also enable more ambitious accomplishments, helping astronauts get to Mars by the late 30s or early 40s.
Related: NASA’s Artemis 1 moon mission: live updates
more: 10 wild facts about the Artemis 1 moon mission
Last week, on November 10, NASA tested hardware that could help manned Mars missions land safely — an inflatable heat shield called LOFTID, launched into Earth’s orbit using the JPSS-2 weather satellite and then returned to Earth. LOFTID survived the fiery return flight in remarkable condition, team members said, indicating that the technology has great potential to help land heavy equipment on Mars.
“The demonstration was a huge success,” said Joe Del Corso, LOFTID project manager at NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia, during a news conference Thursday (November 17).
“We now have the ability to send heavy payloads into space and bring them back down,” he added. “These two successes are huge steps in enabling human access and exploration. We’re going into space, and we want to be able to stay there.”
LOFTID (short for “Low Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator”) is an inflatable heat shield designed to slow the payload’s descent through the planetary atmosphere via drag.
NASA considers this strategy promising for manned Mars plans, which would require landing payloads as large as habitat modules on the Red Planet. Such equipment could tip the scales at 20 tons or so—too heavy for current entry, descent and descent systems to Mars to handle.
For example, NASA’s one-ton Curiosity and Perseverance Mars rover benefited greatly from the method of a rocket-powered sky crane that lowered it safely through the thin air of the Red Planet, agency officials said. (Parachutes were a part of those rover’s landings, too, as was an inflatable heat shield landing system.)
Last week’s launch provided an ambitious test of the technology. LOFTID was launched in a compact configuration with JPSS-2 aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. After deploying from the Centaur upper stage in Atlas V, LOFTID expanded to its full diameter of approximately 20 feet (6 m), centered itself for Earth return and took a plunge .
Initial inspections, conducted after the heat shield was withdrawn from the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, suggested that LOFTID passed the test with flying colors. Another week of analyzes only served to reinforce this conclusion.
“The car just looks beautiful. It looks immaculate, and I can’t say that enough,” said del Corso. “It was amazing to me how good the car looked, how good it looked.”
LOFTID team members said the scientists and engineers will continue to analyze the data for another year or so to get a full understanding of the test flight.
However, the LOFTID project, which cost a total of $93 million over five years, isn’t the last step in Mars’ inflatable heat shields.
Project team members said that a structure three or four times larger than LOFTID would likely be needed to get a payload as large as the Habitat module safely onto the Red Planet. Significantly scaling up the technology poses a number of challenges, which scientists and engineers can now begin to evaluate in earnest after LOFTID’s successful flight.
“There is a great deal of work to be done with that [scaling up]; There are facility considerations that need to be made, said Trudy Curtis, director of technology offerings for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, during a briefing Thursday.
“But the roadmap will guide us on that and our future investments in that,” she added. “We’re looking at that now, and at the short-term future for that. So, yeah, that would be the next step for that capability.”
Mike Wall is the author of “Abroad (Opens in a new tab)Book (Major Grand Publishing, 2018; illustration by Carl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @tweet (Opens in a new tab). Follow us on Twitter @tweet (Opens in a new tab) or Facebook (Opens in a new tab).
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