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Why NASA launched this inflatable shield into space

It landed in the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles off the coast of Hawaii.

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Screenshot of the Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) release into low-orbit on November 10, 2022. (NASA via SWNS)

By Dean Murray via SWNS

A flying saucer-style heat shield was launched into space on Thursday, Nov 10, and it could help humans land on Mars.

The Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) prototype was released from an upper-stage rocket and descended back to Earth from low-Earth orbit.

LOFTID hitched a ride to space aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, before its aeroshell inflated to a six-meter diameter (19.6 feet).

Graphic illustration of the Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID) acting as a heat shield for re-entry. (NASA via SWNS)

NASA confirmed it splashed down in the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles off the coast of Hawaii.

After assessing the situation, crews aboard the Kahana-II ship have begun preparation for recovery operations, which will bring LOFTID aboard the vessel.

The mission's aim is to demonstrate how the inflatable heat shield design can slow down a spacecraft to survive atmospheric entry.

This technology could support landing crews and large robotic missions on Mars, as well as return heavier payloads to Earth.

LOFTID was scheduled to launch as a secondary payload with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s JPSS-2 polar-orbiting satellite from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California.

NASA explained: "For destinations with an atmosphere, one of the challenges NASA faces is how to deliver heavy payloads (experiments, equipment, and people) because current rigid aeroshells are constrained by a rocket’s shroud size.

"One answer is an inflatable aeroshell that can be deployed to a scale much larger than the shroud.

"This technology enables a variety of proposed NASA missions to destinations such as Mars, Venus, Titan as well as return to Earth."

When a spacecraft enters an atmosphere, aerodynamic forces act upon it. Specifically, aerodynamic drag helps to slow it down, converting its kinetic energy into heat.

NASA stated: "Utilizing atmospheric drag is the most mass-efficient method to slow down a spacecraft.

"The atmosphere of Mars is much less dense than that of Earth and provides an extreme challenge for aerodynamic deceleration.

"The atmosphere is thick enough to provide some drag but too thin to decelerate the spacecraft as quickly as it would in Earth's atmosphere.

"LOFTID’s large deployable aeroshell, an inflatable structure protected by a flexible heat shield acts as a giant brake as it traverses the Martian atmosphere.

"The large aeroshell creates more drag than a traditional, smaller rigid aeroshell.

"It begins slowing down in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, allowing the spacecraft to decelerate sooner, at higher altitude, while experiencing less intense heating."

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