NASA launches a giant inflatable heat shield similar to a flying saucer

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NASA successfully tested this morning a giant inflatable heat shield similar to a flying saucer that could one day help people land safely Mars.

LOFTID, an inflatable ‘aeroshell’ about 20 feet in diameter, was launched from a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in California at 04:49 ET (09:49 GMT) on Thursday.

The launch is expected to take place at 04:25 am ET (09:25 GMT); however, due to a ‘valve problem’, the launch window was extended by just over half an hour.

LOFTID made its way to low Earth orbit—less than 1,200 miles from our planet’s surface—at supersonic speeds before it inflated and then began its descent back to Earth.

At 06:34 ET (11:34 GMT) on Thursday, NASA confirmed that LOFTID had inflated and begun its descent.

It deployed its parachute to make a soft splash in the Pacific Ocean east of Hawaii at 07:08 ET (12:08 GMT).

The massive heat shield will be discovered by the Kahana II ship at sea in about two days.

NASA hopes the test will show how the heat shield can act as a giant brake to slow a future spacecraft as it enters the Martian atmosphere.

If humans are to land safely on Mars one day, engineers will need to invent a spacecraft that slows down enough to survive entry into the atmosphere. NASA may have a solution to the problem in the form of a large flying saucer-like inflatable heat shield (pictured) called LOFTID, which was launched into low Earth orbit on Thursday morning.

LOFTID, an inflatable 'aeroshell' about 20 feet in diameter, launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in California on Thursday at 04:49 ET (09:49 GMT)

LOFTID, an inflatable ‘aeroshell’ about 20 feet in diameter, launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket in California on Thursday at 04:49 ET (09:49 GMT)

LOFTID is now traveling into low Earth orbit – less than 1,200 miles from the surface of our planet – before it inflates and then descends back to Earth

LOFTID is now traveling into low Earth orbit – less than 1,200 miles from the surface of our planet – before it inflates and then descends back to Earth

LOFTID prepares to launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, USA

LOFTID prepares to launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, USA

What is LOFTID?

The Low Earth Orbit Flight Test Inflatable Inhibitor (LOFTID) is an inflatable ‘air shell’ about 20 feet in diameter.

The heat shield was launched into space aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on November 10, along with the polar-orbiting JPSS-2 weather satellite.

Once JPSS-2 reaches orbit, the heat shield is inflated and placed on a re-entry path from low Earth orbit to test its ability to slow down and survive re-entry.

The launch was originally scheduled for November 1, but was postponed due to the need to replace the battery on board the upper stage of the Centaur launch vehicle.

Centaur will release LOFTID about 75 minutes after liftoff Thursday, while the recovery team will leave the pre-launch port aboard Kahana II and take two days to reach the drop site east of Honolulu.

LOFTID, which stands for Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator, launched together with the JPSS-2 weather satellite in polar orbit, NASA said.

Once JPSS-2 reaches orbit, LOFTID will be placed on a low-Earth orbit reentry path to demonstrate the ability of an inflatable aeroarmor or heat shield to slow down and survive reentry.

LOFTID is a deceleration test – meaning its massive airfoil acts as a giant brake as it traverses the Martian atmosphere,

As a spacecraft enters the atmosphere, aerodynamic drag helps slow it down—and is therefore an effective method of slowing a spacecraft before it lands.

However, the Martian atmosphere is much less dense than Earth’s and presents a formidable challenge to aerodynamic deceleration.

The Red Planet’s atmosphere is dense enough to provide some drag, but too thin to slow a spacecraft down as quickly as it would in Earth’s atmosphere.

LOFTID’s large expandable airfoil therefore creates more drag than other designs and begins to decelerate in the upper atmosphere, allowing it to decelerate more quickly at higher altitude.

The launch is expected to take place at 04:25 am ET (09:25 GMT);  however, due to a 'valve problem', the launch window was extended by just over half an hour

The launch is expected to take place at 04:25 am ET (09:25 GMT); however, due to a ‘valve problem’, the launch window was extended by just over half an hour

Once JPSS-2 reaches orbit, the heat shield is inflated and placed on a re-entry path from low Earth orbit to test its ability to slow down and survive re-entry

Once JPSS-2 reaches orbit, the heat shield is inflated and placed on a re-entry path from low Earth orbit to test its ability to slow down and survive re-entry

It will travel into low Earth orbit – less than 1,200 miles from our planet's surface – before inflating and then descending back to Earth (artist's impression)

It will travel into low Earth orbit – less than 1,200 miles from our planet’s surface – before inflating and then descending back to Earth (artist’s impression)

It looks like a flying saucer, but scientists hope an odd-looking space disk will help land humans on Mars for the first time

It looks like a flying saucer, but scientists hope an odd-looking space disk will help land humans on Mars for the first time

When it comes to destinations with atmospheres—including Mars, Venus, Titan, and Earth—one of the key challenges NASA faces is how to deliver heavy payloads.

As it stands, current rigid airfoils are limited by the size of the missile’s fairing – its simplified protective shroud.

For example, you may remember the ‘seven minutes of terror’ when NASA’s Perseverance rover parachuted onto the surface of Mars last year.

Radio signals sent from NASA and back take 10 minutes for both sides to make contact, so after the ground team told Perseverance to descend, the rover took over and made the epic journey all by itself.

The heat shield will be launched into space aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, alongside the polar-orbiting JPSS-2 weather satellite

The heat shield will be launched into space aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, alongside the polar-orbiting JPSS-2 weather satellite

If the test is successful, it could prove crucial in helping NASA achieve its ambitious goal of launching humans to the Red Planet within the next decade

If the test is successful, it could prove crucial in helping NASA achieve its ambitious goal of launching humans to the Red Planet within the next decade

The spacecraft flew through the Martian atmosphere traveling at 12,000 miles per hour, but had to slow to zero miles per hour seven minutes later to land safely on the surface.

While Perseverance survived the descent unscathed using a basic parachute, the landing process is more challenging for larger payloads such as rockets with people on board.

“One answer is an inflatable airshell that can be used at a scale much larger than a canopy,” says NASA.

‘This technology enables various proposed NASA missions to destinations such as Mars, Venus, Titan, as well as returning to Earth.’

As part of the Artemis program – the successor to the Apollo program of the 1960s and 1970s – NASA aims to put humans on the moon once again this decade before sending humans to Mars for the first time in the 2030s.

The first phase of the Artemis program, an uncrewed mission to orbit the Moon (called Artemis I), is set to launch next week after repeated delays.

NASA plans to send a manned mission to Mars in 2030 after first landing on the moon

Mars has become the next giant leap for human space exploration.

But before humans reach the red planet, astronauts will take a series of small steps and return to the Moon for a year-long mission.

Details of the lunar orbit mission have been revealed as part of a timeline of events leading up to missions to Mars in the 2030s.

Nasa unveiled its four-step plan (pictured) that it hopes will one day allow humans to visit Mars at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington DC yesterday.  This will mean more missions to the Moon in the coming decades

Nasa unveiled its four-step plan (pictured) that it hopes will one day allow humans to visit Mars at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington DC yesterday. This will mean more missions to the Moon in the coming decades

In May 2017, Greg Williams, Deputy Associate Administrator for Policy and Plans at Usoutlined the space agency’s four-step plan it hopes will one day allow humans to visit Mars, as well as its expected timeline.

First and second phase will involve multiple trips into lunar space to allow for the construction of a habitat that will provide a staging area for the trip.

The final piece of hardware delivered would be the actual Deep Space Transport vehicle that would later be used to transport the crew to Mars.

And in 2027, a year-long simulation of life on Mars will be carried out.

The third and fourth phases will begin after 2030 and will involve permanent crewed expeditions into the Martian system and the Martian surface.

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