NASA will be launching a 20-foot-diameter blow-up heat shield into orbit this week — and then letting it fall back to Earth, splashing down in the Pacific Ocean — in a test that could help humans land safely on Mars. The “Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator” (LOFTID) looks just like a UFO from a sci-fi B-movie, but is designed to act as a giant brake during atmospheric re-entry, converting kinetic energy into heat and slowing its descent. If the test proves successful, heat shields of various sizes could be used to help craft touch down gently on atmosphere-bearing worlds like Mars, Titan and Venus — and even help recover parts of launch vehicles on Earth to make access to space cheaper via rocket reuse.
As NASA explained: “For destinations with an atmosphere, one of the challenges NASA faces is how to deliver heavy payloads — experiments, equipment and people.
“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.
“Utilising 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.