A group of researchers at the Advanced Structures and Composites Center at the University of Maine are working with NASA on inflatable technology that might one day be used to land humans on Mars.
The Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD) consists of a series of large inflatable rings called tori that are similar to inner tubes. They are arranged in decreasing diameter and are connected with fabric in a cone shape.
As a spaceship passed through a planet’s atmosphere, it could deploy the HIAD to slow it down and keep it from crashing into the surface. It would also shield the vehicle from the heat of reentry. A system of parachutes or boosters would help the spacecraft set down safely.
The HIAD was designed largely by engineers at NASA, but the space agency looked to researchers at the University of Maine for their help and expertise. They had experience working with inflatable fabric structures, including the Bridge-in-a-Backpack.
The university is currently in the third year of a four-year, $750,000 grant from NASA. The university pledged another $250,000. The team is studying a variety of inflatable braided fabrics and using a machine that NASA provided to test how much stress they can withstand. NASA issued the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research grant through the Maine Space Grant Consortium.
NASA also awarded University of Maine civil engineering doctoral student Andrew Young a 2015 NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship. The fellowship will provide up to $148,000 in funding over two years. Fellowships were awarded to about 50 students across the United States to study technologies related to space travel.
NASA asked Young to find methods to predict how HIADs of different sizes, orientations, and materials would perform and respond to stress. NASA needs models because testing a HIAD on a full-scale basis would be cost-prohibitive.
The researchers at the university hope the project will lead to future collaborations with NASA and increase NASA’s interest in the university’s institutions and companies.