Over a year ago, NASA’s Artemis I mission returned to Earth, completing a round-trip journey around the Moon and back. As it barreled through the atmosphere, the heat shield aboard the Orion spacecraft reached temperatures of 2,700 Fahrenheit and traveled at more than 18,000 MPH. However, that heat shield was damaged. Now, NASA is testing an inflatable heat shield, and the tests have proven exceptionally successful so far.
The new heat shield was tested as part of NASA’s Low-Earth Orbit Flight Test of an Inflatable Decelerator (LOFTID). The goal with LOFTID was not only to prove that an inflatable heatshield could work but also to prove that it could work for its other purpose, to act as a Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD) aeroshell.
Based on the results that we’re seeing, too, the LOFTID was extremely successful, and the inflatable heat shield was able to not only slow down the test vehicle, but also handle the heat that the atmosphere exerted on it. This event was not only vital to improving how the Orion spacecraft returns to Earth in the future, but it could also help with future missions to other planets.
Most notably, we would need extremely powerful and heat-resistant heatshields to send probes and other spacecraft into the atmospheres of planets like Mars, Venus, and even Saturn’s moon, Titan. With an inflatable heat shield, larger spacecraft wouldn’t need to rely on heavier material to pull off landings on other planets or re-enter our atmosphere.
Due to the success of the LOFTID demo and the fact that it went off without a hitch, NASA believes that it could deliver an even larger inflatable heat shield that is capable of being used on the Vulcan engines, allowing them to be recovered from low Earth orbit and re-used.