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Engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia are working on a lightweight inflatable heat shield that they hope to use to land astronauts on Mars in the 2030s.
The engineers are working on a project called the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator, which resembles a set of stacking rings similar to a popular toy for infants. The researchers hope to use the rings to slow a spacecraft as it enters the Martian atmosphere.
The HIAD will be inflated with nitrogen and covered with a thermal blanket. After it is deployed, the rings will sit above the spacecraft, resembling a mushroom.
The inflatable heat shield could enable astronauts to land on the red planet’s southern plains at high altitudes. Those areas would be inaccessible with other technology.
NASA needs to develop new technology to land on Mars because the spacecraft that will be used will be larger than any used previously. Current heat shield technology weighs too much for the mission. NASA has used parachute-based decelerators to land on Mars since the Viking program in the 1970s. Parachutes would not be a feasible option for landing a large spacecraft with astronauts on Mars.
The moon has no atmosphere, so rockets can be used to land spacecraft. However, that is not possible on Mars, which has an atmosphere that is thinner than Earth’s. Not using propulsion to land on Mars will also reduce the amount of fuel the astronauts will need to carry along for the mission.
Orbital Sciences Corp. invited NASA to launch an experimental second-generation inflatable spacecraft aboard an unmanned private rocket to the International Space Station in October, but the experiment was not ready in time. The rocket exploded soon after it lifted off from Wallops Island, Virginia, and several experiments were destroyed.
The experiment is now scheduled to be launched with the next Antares rocket in 2016. It will test how second-generation inflatable spacecraft technology will perform when it reenters Earth’s atmosphere.
Smaller inflatable experiments have been launched on rockets before, but they have never been sent into orbit. Information gained from earlier projects will be used in the experiment scheduled for 2016.
NASA faces other challenges in getting humans to Mars by the 2030s. Engineers will have to design new in-space propulsion systems, advanced spacesuits, long-term living habitats on board the spacecraft, and deep space communications systems.