NASA is working on a supersonic flying saucer vehicle with an inflatable landing system to deliver large payloads to other planets, including Mars.
The Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) is a disk-shaped module with an inflatable apparatus called a Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD) to reduce its speed as it approaches the surface. Inflatable vessels around the ship will be filled with pressurized air to slow the aircraft. Then a 30-foot parachute will help it land.
In the past, craft were landed on Mars with a skycrane technique that used a system of reverse thruster rockets and tethers. The new method will allow larger payloads to be landed on Mars and may pave the way for a human mission.
Scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been testing the LDSD with rocket sleds to evaluate the effectiveness of the inflatable system. They will next test the efficiency of the parachute attached to the LDSD. They may need a larger parachute than the ones that have been used in the past in order to land larger payloads. Parachutes and reverse thrusters alone will not be effective on Mars because of differences between its atmosphere and those of Earth and the moon.
Flight tests are expected to begin in the fall. They will be conducted at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii. A high-altitude balloon will launch a test vehicle to 120,000 feet, and the rocket will bring it to supersonic speeds and raise it to an altitude of 180,000 feet. The thrusters will disengage, and gravity will cause it to fall back toward Earth. When it reaches Mach 3.5 (2600 miles per hour), the inflatable HAID system will fill with air. It will slow the vehicle, the parachute will be released, and the ship will land.
NASA expects the LDSD project to be ready for a mission to Mars in 2018, but there are currently no missions planned except the tests in Hawaii.
NASA’s Space Technology Program has made a breakthrough development with their revolutionary inflatable heat shield. Just recently, NASA’s Inflatable Re-entry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) completed a successful trip through the Earth’s atmosphere.
IRVE-3 reached hypersonic speeds of up to 7,600 mph during its historic trip through the atmosphere. The heat shield is made up of a custom inflatable outer shell that helps it slow down from its high speeds and offers protection upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. The deputy director of NASA’s Space Technology Program James Reuther said;
“It’s great to see the initial results indicate we had a successful test of the hypersonic inflatable aerodynamic decelerator. This demonstration flight goes a long way toward showing the value of these technologies to serve as atmospheric entry heat shields for future space.”
The IRVE-3 also consists of a cone which is made up of a series of un-inflated high tech rings of braided Kevlar lined with silicon. A thermal blanket of layers of heat resistant materials is used to cover the rings. The IRVE-3 also uses materials such as Nextel, Pyrogel, and Kapton to create a revolutionary thermal protection system that is similar to a fireman’s suit. The only difference is the thermal protection system that the IRVE-3 uses can withstand temperatures up to 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit.
NASA hopes that the inflatable technology will help them explore planets like Mars, Venus, and Titan. They also hope that they can use the inflatable heat shield to eventually transport humans. The IRVE-3 project will help NASA take another giant leap in space travel.
Recently NASA has awarded a contract to explore ways to potentially expand the International Space Station. The company that received the contract, Bigelow Aerospace, will have access to $17.8 million to create an inflatable extension for the space station. According to NASA, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module “will demonstrate the benefits of this space habitat technology for future exploration and commercial space endeavors.” NASA hopes that this new inflatable technology can help get astronauts reach distances they never have before.
You may not have known, but inflatable space technology is nothing new. The first passive communication satellites, Echo 1 and Echo 2, were both inflatable. This technology came about when NASA determined that satellite would be too big to fit into the Thor-Delta rocket in 1958. To alleviate this problem, NASA decided to have the satellites inflate when they reached space.
The idea of a self-contained inflatable habitat for space exploration has been around for decades. It has been budget constraints that have help NASA from putting the idea into action. In 2000, NASA had to cancel its “Transit Habitat” plan that would get astronaut crews to Mars using the inflatable technology due to budget issues.
The Bigelow Aerospace company has been working independently on inflatable habitats for many years. Currently, Bigelow offers a BA 330 inflatable habitat that can be both added on to an existing station or operate on its own. The BA 330 has 330 cubed meters of volume and can support a crew of up to six people for an extended period of time. According to Bigelow, the BA 330’s radiation protection can at least match that of the International Space Station. The inflatable habitat’s “aluminum can” design features four large windows the crew can use to look out into space.
There is no confirmation on whether or not Bigelow Aerospace’s BA 330 or another inflatable habitat has been commissioned by NASA. However, NASA plans to hold a press even soon with Bigelow to discuss their plans for the inflatable project.