NASA researchers have tested an almost 20-foot inflatable spacecraft heat shield in wind tunnels and laboratories. Image Credit: NASA/Kathy Barnstorff

NASA engineers developing HIAD, new inflatable heat shield technology, for manned Mars mission

NASA researchers have found a way to land future large spacecrafts meant for Mars landing with a lightweight inflatable heat shield similar to a stacking ring used in toys.

Engineers from Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia are working on the concept of an inflatable spacecraft technology to develop a heat shield that looks larger with huge rings.

Known as the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, the inflatable rings will be filled with nitrogen and used as protection from re-entry heat by a thermal blanket and will be placed above the descending spacecraft.

“We try to not use propulsion if we don’t have to. We make use of that atmosphere as much as we can, because it means we don’t have to carry all that fuel with us,” said Neil Cheatwood of the Langley center.

inflatable-spacecraft-technologyThe researchers are confident that the design will help large aircrafts to land on Mars, where the atmosphere is thinner than Earth’s. Currently rockets are used to land on Earth but on Mars, rockets alone cannot slow down the large spacecrafts and parachutes will not sustain the load of a heavy space vehicles on the Red Planet.

As the existing technology will not be helpful to land heavy spacecraft with humans on Mars, researchers hope the new inflatable heat shield could fill the gap. If it is successful, then landing on the high-altitude southern plains of Mars can be opted for Martian journey.

As NASA has successfully tested its large Orion spacecraft in December 2014, now it is working on safe landing technology to send manned mission to Mars in the future.

The group of NASA engineers based at NASA’s Langley Research Center have been working on the inflatable spacecraft aeroshell technology for more than a decade.

“We have been eating, sleeping, dreaming this technology — in my case for six years,” said Anthony Calomino during a peer review of the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator project in June last year. The project was part of the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s Game Changing Development Program.

Another champion of Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerators, Cheatwood, says, “This idea has actually been around since the 1960s,” said Cheatwood. “But now we have materials that can withstand higher temperatures.”
“We’ve made great strides with this technology,” added Cheatwood. “I think HIAD is the most important entry, descent and landing technology under development by the Agency. The issue with Mars is that it has a poor excuse for an atmosphere, but you can’t ignore it.”

The shield is a three-meter or about 10-foot test article that, when inflated, looked like a child’s stacking ring toy composed of giant braided, reinforced, high-tech fabric hoops lashed together — then covered by a thermal blanket made up of layers of heat resistant materials. The team worked to develop technologies that could allow the aeroshell to be bigger for landing heavy cargo and humans on Mars.

The scientists have collaborated with universities and industry and did wind tunnel tests at NASA facilities and others across the US already.

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